Super-Models: Hans Eysenck

The two-axis political test is among the most famous and most frequently cited ways to chart political affiliation. I want to talk a little bit about its history, and about the different iterations of this model that I’ve seen before. We’re going to get into their strengths, weaknesses, and creators, starting with one of the most prominent psychologists of the 21st century.

You might have seen the Political Compass before. I would say that, after the very basic left-vs-right model used on cable news, the Political Compass is the most common tool I see. Its quadrants are divided by two axes, a ‘left vs right’ that it dubs the economic scale and a ‘libertarian vs authoritarian’ axis that is dubs the social scale. It’s a popular tool to introduce people to ideas beyond the simple left-right dynamic.

The Political Compass, 2001

These divides are roughly analogous to Hans Eysenck’s 1956 scale from The Psychology of Politics. Eysenck, as with many of these scales, had an x-axis he labeled ‘Radical vs Conservative’, hearkening back (as many of these axes do) to the French Revolution. His y-axis is unique, however; it was labeled ‘tender-minded vs tough-minded’. Eysenck believed that what united the Nazis and the Communists, which he saw as roughly analogous movements on the conservative and radical axis, was their ‘tough-mindedness’. Essentially: They were both authoritarians, but their authoritarianism was aimed at producing different outcomes. You can see, I hope, how influential this was on tests like the Political Compass.

The tough-minded vs tender-minded idea is an interesting conception, and I like that it is rooted more in psychology and philosophy than political theory. He pulled that dichotomy from W. James, who described the difference thus.

The particular difference of temperament that I have in mind… is one that has counted in literature, art, government, and manners as well as in philosophy. In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons. In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics. You recognize these contrasts as familiar; well, in philosophy we have a very similar contrast expressed in the pair of terms “rationalist” and “empiricist”, “empircist” meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, “rationalist” meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.

I will write these traits down in two columns. I think you will practically recognize the two types of mental-make up that I mean if I head the columns by the titles “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” respectively

W. James, as quoted by Hans Eysenck in ‘The Psychology of Politics’

You might notice that this is deeply arbitrary. James’ differentiation as to which is tough (empiricists, materialists, skeptics) and which is tender (rationalists, religious folk, idealists) is rooted firmly in his opinions. The scale is attached to binaries that are often relevant to British academia, but not to day-to-day life — and certainly not to other cultures, which wouldn’t be as rooted in these specific traditions.

Because of that arbitrariness, Eysenck’s scale has a hard time dealing with… well, the real world. Religion, for example, is inherently tender, and tenderness is inherently anti-authoritarian. And yet, I think everyone can picture incredibly authoritarian religious organizations and governments with relative ease.

Eysenck’s dedication, both to James’ tough-tender conception and to another pair of academic ideas I’ll discuss in a moment radically warped his conception of politics, and his presentation of the data. I found a 1956 paper from social psychologists Milton Rokeach and Charles Hanley that explains the way Eysenck’s data was warped pretty effectively. Here is a graph of Eysenck’s survey data.

From ‘The Psychological Bulletin’, 1956, Vol 53, No. 2

You can see right away some interesting choices being made. The communists are, in Eysenck’s end-report, the most tough-minded group. Here, however, we can see that these British communists had some views that wouldn’t be at all out of the mainstream American discourse today, and others that are downright progressive. The catch is in what Eysenck decides counts as ‘tough-minded’ or ‘tender-minded’.

To Eysenck, the beliefs held by communists that got them labeled as tough-minded are:

  • Christian observance of Sunday as a day of rest should no longer guide society as a whole.
  • Abortion should be accessible.
  • Religion is not necessary for a civilization to survive.
  • Divorce should be attainable for those who want it.
  • Religious education in schools should not be mandatory.
  • Pre-marital sex is fine and reasonable.

Notably, to Eysenck, these stances make communists authoritarian. But the following stances the communists took do not appear to make them that much less authoritarian.

  • People of color are not inherently inferior to Whites.
  • War is not inherent to human nature.
  • It is acceptable to lose some national sovereignty for a more peaceful world.
  • Disabled people should not be forcibly sterilized.*
  • Men and women are sexually equal.
  • Capital punishment is unjust.
  • Conscientious objectors to war are not traitors.
  • The Japanese are not an inherently cruel people.

As Rokeach and Hanley go on to discuss in their critique, Eysenck’s ideas map much more closely onto a pair of older spectrums: Clifford Kirkpatrick and Leonard Ferguson’s ‘Religion and Humanitarianism’ scales, both of which are from the 1940s. But Ferguson and Kirkpatrick were not trying to discuss political philosophy or ideology, and their scale is not well-tailored to do so. Consequently, Eysenck had to be adaptable, and it seems like he did not do a great job at adapting the questions, or in analyzing their results.

Indeed, the analysis Rokeach and Hanley do on the way Eysenck presents his data is pretty rough on the doctor. From their conclusion:

Our analysis leads us to the conclusion that tough-mindedness–tender-mindedness, as conceived and measured by Eysenck, has no basis in fact. It is based on miscalculations and a disregard for a significant portion of his data. It conceals rather than reveals the attitudinal differences existing among political groups.

Hanley, Rokeach. “Eysenck’s Tender-Mindedness Dimension: A Critique.” The Psychological Bulletin, 1956, Vol 53, No. 2

While no political models that I’m aware of use Eysenck’s tough-minded/tender-minded scale exactly, I think it’s important to open with Eysenck. His work was influential, if widely critiqued, and his basic, two-axis format is still used by a great many people (myself included) to this day.

But it’s also important because it introduces the key flaw in any sort of indicator of bias: Subjectivity. Hans Eysenck heavily weighted religious aspects when compared to secular ones when analyzing the data behind his survey, and deprioritized secular ones. Beyond that, Eysenck had a history as he got older to promote increasingly far-right ideas for press. It should come as no surprise, as he dove into the more frequently racist corners of the ‘race and intelligence‘ debate of the 70s, that questions of racial equality were less heavily weighted than questions of intelligence and faith.

When you see Eysenck’s scale spell out so nakedly that ‘evolution’ and ‘capital punishment’ are equally tough-minded, you might reasonable begin to question whether there’s any use to this scale at all.

From Hans Eysenck’s ‘The Psychology of Politics’

Indeed, graphs, maps, charts — these can all be deeply misleading. Sometimes, it will be unintentional, the result of someone who is simply misreading the data. Sometimes, it will be very much on purpose, though, as there is a lot of money and clout in misleading people. Data looks objective, even scientific, but in reality, it is no better than the methods used to collect, analyze, and present it.

One reason I want to be open about my process is because I don’t want my political bias map to be ‘the final word’ on these issues. I would much rather people use the definitions and ratings I’m working on and check me — or challenge the rationale behind the ratings system altogether! Eysenck was an influential and well-credentialed professional; I am an interested amateur feeling my way out as I go. You can imagine, then, how many more issues my own work will have, in the beginning.

In the years since Eysenck’s death in the 1990s, his academic reputation has taken quite a blow. Once among the most cited psychologists of the 20th century, third only to Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, Eysenck’s work has since been shown to have been riddled with errors, with “questionable data and results so dramatic they beggared belief.” This has led to retractions of a number of his past papers from scientific journals. It is not despite these flaws that it is important to start this off with a look at Eysenck, but because of them.

We are all fallible, and prone to letting the heart lead the head. That isn’t always bad, but it is something we need to be cognizant of. Hans Eysenck’s research on political psychology is an important reminder to be skeptical and read data carefully before accepting a spoon-fed conclusion. It’s also influential to the way many people talk about political theory in the West. There’s a lesson to be learned somewhere in that intersection.

I hope you found this article interesting! Coming up soon, we’ll be talking about Jerry Pournelle’s 1963 Pournelle chart, which changes things up considerably.


*As a note to end on, I want to comment on this bit of data. While the communists interviewed were the least favorable of the four groups to sterilizing the disabled, they were still largely in favor of it. The history and brutality of eugenics campaigns against the disabled is something that many societies have never really reckoned with — and because of that, many deeply shitty policies remain in place. Even sterilization campaigns are still talked about as a mainstream option in places like prisons, and procedures like the ‘Ashley Treatment‘ were still in use as recently as 2012 from what I can tell.

If you want to learn more about these issues, here are some things you can check out. If there are other organizations who deserve a mention, please reach out and I will happily add links as I vet them.

Finally, I would like to say that this is a bigger topic than I am capable of covering myself right now. That said, I’ve had a few educators and activists reach out, and I may add more (or do a full post!) as I learn more. As with everything on here, this is a learning experience for me.

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