What Is… the Psychology of Tyranny

The psychology of tyranny - image of Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictaro

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the psychology of tyranny.

History is filled with tyrants causing massive damage to humanity. Some of them take power by force, while others, like Adolf Hitler, were chosen by the people. How is it that people are willing to embrace tyrants in the making?

How it starts

Sigmund Freud believed that people who were drawn to authoritarian leaders idealized them, seeing them as heroic and without flaws. Furthermore, he believed people substituted the tyrant for their ego ideal, which represents their guiding values and sense of right and wrong. The leader thus becomes their conscience, and their word determines what’s right and wrong.m There’s a certain parallel to monotheistic religions, where the leader is seen as omniscient, omnipotent, and not to be challenged.

People who follow the leader become part of a collective, with a sense of unity and greater purpose. This is similar to what happens with conspiracy theorists; people are able to unite and feel like they belong and have shared goals.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, othering is an important part of establishing authoritarian regimes. A particular group is identified as conspiring against the in-group, and support of the in-group is rallied to defeat them. mIn the 1920s and 1930s, Fascists created scenarios where conspiratorial “others” necessitated a strong leader to use violence to defeat them. This was likely easy to do given Germany’s crushing reparations they had to pay following World War I.

Authoritarians interact with the public on the basis of lies that the public wants to hear rather than the truth. An article in the Washington Post says:

“Democracy depends upon a certain idea of truth: not the babel of our impulses, but an independent reality visible to all citizens. This must be a goal; it can never fully be achieved. Authoritarianism arises when this goal is openly abandoned, and people conflate the truth with what they want to hear. Then begins a politics of spectacle, where the best liars with the biggest megaphones win.”

Those who join in

Regardless of the personality and mindset of the authoritarian leader, there are many other people who play a supporting role. Not all of them may be psychologically disposed to authoritarianism, but circumstances, role identities, and dehumanizing the “other” can lead to behaviours that might not have been demonstrated otherwise. There were large numbers of concentration camp guards during the Holocaust, not all of whom were monsters to begin with.

The Stanford prison experiment, conducted in 1971 at Stanford University, set up a mock prison with student participants acting as guards or as inmates. The study, which was supposed to last 2 weeks, was terminated after 6 days because the situation had gotten completely out of hand and the “guards” were behaving sadistically and mistreating “prisoners.”

The lead investigator concluded that the study participants had internalized the roles to the point that it overrode their natural personality traits. Deindividuation of the “prisoners” facilitated this. While significant methodological concerns limit the generalizability of the findings, it’s still disturbing to see how quickly average people can take control to extremes.

Research into the psychology of mass violence has shown that sadism can emerge under certain social conditions in people who otherwise do not have sadism as a personality trait.

The propaganda machine

Part of maintaining an authoritarian state is controlling information. Some examples of propaganda strategies that feed into our cognitive biases are:

  • appeal to fear: being afraid of the “other” boosts support for the propagandist to take on that other
  • big lie: these are “alternative facts,” one might say, that are used to justify subsequent actions; for example, the Nazis crafted the story that Germany only lost World War I because of betrayal by Jews on the home front.
  • cult of personality: mass media is used to promote public idealization of an individual
  • managing the news: Wikipedia quotes Adolf Hitler as saying “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” —After all, the illusory truth effect shows us that familiarity increases believability.
  • name-calling: becomes a substitute for making fact-based arguments

Any of this sounding familiar?

The demise of democracy?

A Freedom House report indicated that, in 2017, 71 countries had an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties. Only 35 had an improvement. This was the 12th year in a row that more countries had declines than improvements.

The Washington Post reports that people who came of age during the internet era are less concerned about democracy and more okay with authoritarianism than any other generation. The article describes the internet erasing the separation between public and private experiences, so we start to think that what’s inside our heads actually represents external reality. Our desires become truth, plenty of bots created by authoritarian regimes will feed us the fiction-as-fact that we want to see.

On Tyranny

In his book On Tyranny (affiliate link), Timothy Snyder warned:

  • “Be wary of paramilitaries.”
  • “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
  • “The feeling of submission to authority might be comforting, but it is not the same thing as actual safety.”
  • “The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens.”

He also pointed out that obeying in advance can cause problems, giving the example of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment in which participants were instructed by the experiment to deliver a series of electric shocks to other individuals. The premise was that these others were involved in a “learning” experiment, and when they gave wrong answers, the experimenter would indicate to the participant to deliver a “shock.” The shocks weren’t actually delivered, but the “learner” actors behaved as though they had actually received a painful shock. Study participants continued following instructions to deliver “shocks” until participants feigned death.

Avoiding tyranny before it happens

The Scholars Strategic Network has put together some handy, and only slightly tongue-in-cheek, tips to avoid heading in the direction of tyranny, such as:

  • defend public institutions (a free press would be an example)
  • beware of any drive for a one-party state
  • notice and remove symbols and signs of hate (like swastikas) as you notice them emerging
  • seek truth and facts
  • investigate for yourself, look things up, read
  • be alert to the use of extremist language

It’s really rather scary how sheep-like we are.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

20 thoughts on “What Is… the Psychology of Tyranny”

  1. There’s a certain parallel to monotheistic religions, where the leader is seen as omniscient and omnipotent, and is not to be challenged.

    I don’t see that as necessarily following. At least, I don’t see it in Judaism, although I see how people could see it there or act like that.

    I think there are worrying signs in contemporary society, but I also feel that people can be overly pessimistic. People have been worrying about the USA becoming Fascist since the sixties (if not earlier), and it hasn’t happened, and there are reasons in terms of constitutional checks and balances and high levels of social capital. The mere fact that so many people are worrying about the US becoming a dictatorship is a strong sign that lots of people DON’T want that to happen. I’ve certainly seen far more Americans say they’re worried about Trump and “fake news” than I’ve seen people saying they want a strong leader (admittedly this is online, so possibly slanted to a certain outlook).

    I think leaping to assumptions about totalitarian dictatorships (or “0 to Hitler in 60 seconds’ as I’ve taken to thinking of it) can lead to a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Of course, some would say that Donald Trump is the wolf, to which someone might say, “If you hadn’t said Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes were also Hitler, maybe more people would have taken you seriously.” (In many ways I would find Nixon a better candidate for potential American dictator than Trump; even though I strongly dislike Trump as a man and president, Nixon was arguably worse, and did more illegal acts.) I guess my fears are more about Trump laying the groundwork for a future dictator ten years down the line, as I just don’t see enough of the pieces in place at the moment for that to happen. My big worries for America are actually increasing numbers of random mass shootings than anything more structured and also an election outcome inconclusive enough for Trump to get it caught up in the courts indefinitely, like Florida 2000 on steroids.

    I have more I want to say about this, but haven’t got time/headspace; maybe I’ll revisit it on my own blog.

    1. If I recall correctly what I read, it wasn’t that religions are tyrannical, it was that people who support tyrants tend to view them as almost godlike.

      Trump is certainly no Hitler, but his attempts to undermine the freedom of the press and call into question the integrity of the election, and the large base of supporters who would likely agree that the sky was orange if he told them so, is concerning.

  2. Wow this was fascinating. People seem so easy to manipulate. Our minds so malleable. When I think of those who blindly followed Hitler or the Prison Ģuards in the experiment, or those who were able to deliver electric shocks to another, I find myself thinking that we all have the capacity to inflict harm. To perhaps commit evil acts. Those people were normal people but were able to be swayed. Can we ever really know ourselves?

    I was surprised to read that those who came of age during the internet era are less pro democracy.

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