Frenkel-Brunswik, Else

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Frenkel-Brunswik, Else

Personality theory

“The Authoritarian Personality”

Later career




Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1908-1958) was born of Polish-Jewish parents in the town of Lemberg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and received her doctorate in psychology in 1930 at the University of Vienna. She continued at the university, as lecturer and research associate, until shortly after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. With her husband, Egon Brunswik, she then moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where she remained until her death.

The professional life of Else Frenkel-Brunswik covers a period that was not one of great new theories or startling discoveries in psychology. It was, rather, a time of expansion and ferment. The boundaries of academic psychology were being extended from the study of segmental psychological processes in the experimental laboratory to a more profound conception of human personality in its development over time and its engagement with a complex sociocultural environment. Psychologists sought to grasp the implications of the revolutionary changes stemming from psychoanalysis, from the physical sciences, and from cataclysmic societal developments. To an unusual degree, Frenkel-Brunswik’s career reflected these major intellectual and social developments and at the same time influenced the course of psychology.

Her doctoral thesis (1931) under Karl Biihler attempted a rapprochement between traditional as-sociationism and the newer concepts of gestalt psychology. Subsequently, on the staff of the Psychological Institute, headed by Charlotte Biihler, she collaborated in a series of developmental studies (see, for example, Frenkel & Weisskopf 1937) derived from the biographies of 400 persons selected from various historical periods and walks of life. This research, although theoretically limited, exemplifies enduring features of her approach: the developmental view of personality; the combined use of phenomenological and behavioral data and of multiple assessment methods; and the functional view of behavioral striving in terms of adaptation and goal achievement.

The situation in Vienna provided three additional formative influences. First, there was the philosophical influence of the logical positivism of the “Vienna circle,” which included such men as Neu-rath, Schlick, and Carnap. This produced an enduring concern with problems of theory development, conceptual and operational definition of terms, and the role of inference in personality measurement.

Second, there was the influence of psychoanalysis, which was of fundamental importance in shaping her future work. She had a personal analysis in Vienna. Although she did not become a practicing psychoanalyst, a clinical mode of thought continually informed her research, her teaching, and her experience of life. One of her initial studies drawing upon psychoanalytic theory was “Mechanisms of Self-deception” (1939).

A third influence derived from the sociopolitical situation during the 1930s. Frenkel-Brunswik was deeply affected by the tragic events of that period. However, it was only after she came to the United States that these concerns were explicitly reflected in her intellectual work.

Although the emigration from Austria in 1938 was in many respects painful, her situation in the United States offered tremendous opportunity and stimulation. She flourished there. Her first position in California was at the Institute of Child Welfare, and she maintained this association for the rest of her career.

Personality theory

One of her first publications in the United States was the paper “Psychoanalysis and Personality Research” (1940), which was read at the now-historic Symposium on Psychoanalysis by Analyzed Experimental Psychologists. In this paper, she wrote, not as an “analyzed experimental psychologist,” but as a personality theorist in the broadest sense. She recognized that there was complementarity as well as conflict between the psychoanalytic, phenomenological, and behaviorist schools. Rather than starting with one of these theoretical positions, she sought to identify, in terms meaningful to all of them, the basic theoretical domains in the study of personality. She posited four such domains: the central and the peripheral levels of personality (following and enlarging upon Henry A. Murray’s formulation ); and the proximal and distal effects of behavior upon the environment (a perspective on behavior utilizing the distinction made by gestalt theorists and by Egon Brunswik). A truly comprehensive personality theory, she maintained, must encompass relationships between all four domains rather than being encapsulated within one or two. She argued also for the combined use of clinical and experimental modes of investigation. Although many of her then-radical proposals are now widely accepted, this paper stands as a fresh statement of the theoretical and methodological tasks of dynamic personality research.

In her monograph “Motivation and Behavior” (1942) Frenkel-Brunswik applied and developed further the theoretical position outlined in her 1940 article. This empirical study of adolescents made use of concepts and measures in several theoretical domains. There were self-reports obtained through questionnaires, observers’ ratings of behavior in specific social situations, projective test material, and clinical ratings of underlying (central) motives based upon inferences from a wide variety of observational and test data. The concept of alternative manifestation was developed and operationalized, to help account for the relationships of underlying motives to overt behavior and conscious self-report, and theoretically sophisticated use was made of partial and multiple correlation techniques. In this study Frenkel-Brunswik provided one of the earliest models of systematic personality research. She dealt with various levels of personality, seen as dynamically interdependent, and she contributed to the methodology of inferential clinical ratings, relating them to more-directly behavioral measures and giving them a legitimate place within the academic psychological investigation of personality. Her work on the clinical ratings was innovative in at least two respects. On the one hand, she developed techniques to increase the explicitness and reliability of clinical inferences. On the other, she anticipated the later research on social perception in her study of the influence of the rater’s personality on his judgments of subjects’ motivation and behavior.

Her sociopsychological interests took form in the early 1940s. In 1942 she had a Social Science Research Council fellowship for work in sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago, Harvard, the Langley Porter Institute, and with Kroeber and others at the University of California. In 1943 she joined Sanford and Levinson in a study of personality and prejudice, and Adorno became their collaborator soon after. The study expanded over the next few years and was published under the title The Authoritarian Personality (1950). During this period she was also engaged in a related study of prejudice in children and families (see Frenkel-Brunswik & Havel 1953).

“The Authoritarian Personality”

Frenkel-Brunswik made certain distinctive and specifiable contributions to The Authoritarian Personality; these will be noted below. She also contributed in significant but less identifiable ways to the character of that work as a whole. The basic theoretical conception and methodology of the research were an emergent product of intimately collaborative effort by the four coauthors and reflected their common intellectual concerns. Without attempting to allocate specific credit to individual authors, I shall simply indicate the major features of this comprehensive project. It will be evident that they express Frenkel-Brunswik’s earlier interests and are of importance in her subsequent work.

Theoretically, The Authoritarian Personality represented a convergence of previously disparate viewpoints: attitude theory in academic psychology; the sociological analysis of ideology; and psychoanalysis and related personality theories, notably that of Murray. Consciously held attitudes, values, and ideologies were regarded as aspects of personality. They were related to contemporaneous character traits, cognitive-emotional styles, ego defenses, and less conscious wishes and fantasies. The formation of ideology was seen in developmental perspective and was related to more general processes of ego and superego development. In retrospect, the approach may be seen as a form of psychoanalytic ego theory; that is to say, it drew upon traditional psychoanalytic concepts and at the same time emphasized and conceptualized ego processes that link the person more directly with his social environment. This approach, now widely held in various forms, was at the time a major innovation in social psychology.

Methodologically, the research on authoritarianism involved the conjoint use of previously disparate techniques: scales and other questionnaire devices, projective techniques, and semistructured clinical interviews. Intensive case studies were used to develop hypotheses and to guide the explicit formulation of variables that were then measured by means of questionnaires administered to groups. The continuing interplay of clinical and statistical analysis was an essential feature of the methodology. The Authoritarianism (F) Scale, perhaps the most widely used and most poorly understood product of the study, was one result of this interplay.

The most clearly identifiable contributions by Frenkel-Brunswik are in the chapters bearing her name. These deal with the construction and analysis of the intensive, semistructured interviews. The interviews were standardized in the sense that they covered a predefined set of topical areas and theoretical issues, and they required considerable advance training of the interviewers. At the same time they had a clinically “open” quality in that the interviewer tried to follow the threads of the subject’s thought and feeling; within the loose structure of the topical areas and issues, the content and sequence of the interview were largely determined by the interviewee. This was, in short, a qualitatively distinct hybrid—a cross between the survey and the therapy interview—and an important contribution to personality-social research.

In the analysis of the interviews Frenkel-Brunswik developed an extensive series of categories that distinguish “high-authoritarian” from “low-authoritarian” subjects. The rating of each category required clinical inference on the part of the rater. To help control for the subjectivity in this process, the categories were defined in some detail and were scored by two independent raters, so that reliability could be determined. Categories were developed in three broad domains: parents and childhood; sex, people, and self; and dynamic and cognitive personality organization. The interpretive integration of findings in these domains led to the formulation of a smaller number of major themes and patterns.

One of the concepts developed here (and given greater prominence in her subsequent research) is intolerance of ambiguity (1949). This concept has a complex, many-faceted character. Its referents include a tendency toward oversimplification in perceptions and conceptions of the external world; a deep uneasiness about ambiguity and lack of order in personal relationships and social structures; a proclivity to engage in moralistic, all-good or all-bad value judgments, without recognition of moral ambiguities; an inability to acknowledge ambivalence (emotional ambiguity) in one’s experience of parents and significant others. This concept thus has motivational, emotional, cognitive, and moral aspects, and it refers to the person’s experience of both self and external world. Although subsequent evidence has not fully supported Frenkel-Bruns-wik’s initial formulation of intolerance of ambiguity as a relatively unified, pervasive trait, it does indicate the usefulness of this kind of multiple-component concept as a genotype underlying diverse overt behaviors.

Later career

The period from 1950 to 1955 was a lively and productive one for Frenkel-Brunswik. She visited Europe for the Rockefeller Foundation and reported on the condition of European psychology. She wrote a number of papers that reflected the growing breadth of her theoretical interests: on the interaction of sociological and psychological variables (1952; 1954fo); on perceptual-cognitive functioning as an aspect of personality (1951); on psychoanalysis and the unity of science (1954a; 1957). In 1953 she began a study of aging; this work was completed and published by colleagues (Reichard et al. 1962) after her death. In 1954/1955, she was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

This period of great vitality was cut short by the tragic death of her husband, Egon, in 1955—a blow from which she never fully recovered. Her final dream had been a major treatise on values, a book that would bring together her lifelong interests in psychoanalysis, sociology, and philosophy. This hope was ended by her own premature death in 1958.

Frenkel-Brunswik’s intellectual commitment, warmth, and intensity were reflected in her relationships with students. Although she did not do much formal teaching, she developed unusually close relationships through seminars, research collaboration, and informal contacts. She had a charismatic femininity. The number of present-day psychologists who feel a special gratitude to her and who regard her as a major formative influence in their personal and professional development is large indeed.

The contributions of Frenkel-Brunswik can perhaps best be grasped within the context of the radical new developments in American psychology during the period of roughly 1935 to 1950. She was a founding figure in the establishment of the new fields of personality psychology and social and clinical psychology. She forged important links between psychoanalysis and academic personality research. She contributed to the development of a conception of man that takes account of both reason and passion, of the most primitive and the most mature, of the autistic and the socially embedded aspects of his nature. Finally, she was multidisciplinary in the best sense of the word. She was ready to engage in disciplined search for the relevant, no matter how far it led from her disciplinary origins.


[For the historical context of Frenkel-Brunswik’s work, seeGESTALT THEORY; PERSONALITY: CONTEMPORARY VIEWPOINTS, article onCOMPONENTS OF AN EVOLVING PERSONOLOGICAL SYSTEM; and the biographies ofBRUNSWIK; BUHLER; SCHLICK. For discussion of the subsequent development of Frenkel-Brunswik’s ideas, seeATTITUDES; PERSONALITY, POLITICAL, article onCONSERVATISM AND RADICALISM.]


The author was given access to an unpublished manuscript dealing with the life and work of Else Frenkel-Brunswik by Joan Havel Grant and Nanette Heiman. The manuscript is scheduled for publication in Psychological Issues in 1968. It should be noted that Frenkel-Brunswik’s works are sometimes listed in bibliographies and in library catalogues under Brunswik.


1931 Atomismus und Mechanismus in der Assoziations-psychologie. Zeitschrift für Psychologie 123:193-258.

1937 FRENKEL, ELSE; and WEISSKOPF, EDITH Wunsch und Pflicht im Aufbau des menschlichen Lebens. Volume 1 in Psychologische Forschungen iiber den Lebenslauf. Edited by Charlotte Biihler and Else Frenkel. Vienna: Gerold.

1939 Mechanisms of Self-deception. Journal of Social Psychology 10:409-420.

1940 Psychoanalysis and Personality Research. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 35:176-197.

1942 Motivation and Behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs 26:121-265.

1949 Intolerance of Ambiguity as an Emotional and Perceptual Personality Variable. Journal of Personality 18:108-143.

1950 The Authoritarian Personality, by T. W. Adorno et al. New York: Harper. ⇒ Else Frenkel-Brunswik was a coauthor.

1951 Personality Theory and Perception. Pages 356-419 in Robert R. Blake and Glenn V. Ramsey (editors), Perception: An Approach to Personality. New York: Ronald.

1952 Interaction of Psychological and Sociological Factors in Political Behavior. American Political Science Re- view 46:44-65.

1953 FRENKEL-BRUNSWIK, ELSE; and HAVEL, JOAN Prejudice in the Interviews of Children. Part 1: Attitudes Toward Minority Groups. Journal of Genetic Psychology 82:91-136.

1954a Psychoanalysis and the Unity of Science. Daedalus 80:271-350.

1954b Environmental Controls and the Impoverishment of Thought. Pages 171-202 in American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Totalitarianism: Proceedings of a Conference. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1957 Perspectives in Psychoanalytic Theory. Pages 150-182 in Henry P. David and Helmut von Bracken (editors), Perspectives in Personality. New York: Basic Books.


REICHARD, SUZANNE K.; PETERSON, PAUL C.; and LrvsoN, FLORINE 1962 Aging and Personality: A Study of Eighty-seven Older Men. New York: Wiley. ⇒ A report on a study directed by Else Frenkel-Brunswik.