Photo of Else Frenkel-Brunswik

Else Frenkel-Brunswik





Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Vienna (1930)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Institute of Child Welfare, University of California, Berkeley (1939-1958)

University of California, Berkeley (1944-1958)

Career Focus:

Authoritarian personality; prejudice; psychoanalysis; logical positivism.


The middle of three daughters, Else Frenkel was born on August 18, 1908 in Lemberg, Poland to Abraham and Helene Frenkel. Lacking the beauty of her older sister and the attention given to the younger, she was later to credit her intellectual achievements to being the plainest of the daughters.

Her father, a prominent Jewish banker, moved the family to Vienna in 1914 to escape the pogroms targeted at Poland's Jewish community. In Vienna, Frenkel graduated from the gymnasium in 1926 and attended the University of Vienna where she completed her doctorate in 1930 under Karl Bühler. Her dissertation sought to reconcile the older psychological associationism with the newer Gestalt ideas. Working with both Karl and Charlotte Bühler in their Psychological Institute at the University, Frenkel both held an assistant professorship and worked with Charlotte Bühler on biographical studies which led to her later work on personality research. While in Vienna Frenkel underwent psychoanalysis, exploring her role as the middle, less pretty child. Her interest in psychoanalysis would play a prominent role in her academic research and career, as would her exposure to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle.

Having to flee Austria in 1938 due to the Anschluss, which merged Austria with Nazi Germany, Frenkel subsequently married fellow Bühler student and psychologist Egon Brunswik in New York on June 9, 1938. Recruited by Edward Tolman at Berkeley, Egon Brunswik and his new wife moved to California to take up his new post. However, nepotism rules prevented Frenkel-Brunswik from being considered for a tenure appointment, so she became a research psychologist in the Institute of Child Welfare at Berkeley as well as a lecturer in the psychology department. One of her students, Daniel J. Levinson, became a collaborator on what would become the work for which she is best known, The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950. Prior to that seminal work, Frenkel-Brunswik published "Mechanisms of Self-Deception" in 1939 which elaborated on the tenets of psychoanalysis to an eager American audience interested in the budding field. Her familiarity with logical positivism enabled her to craft an argument for the scientific merits of psychoanalytic concepts.

In 1945 she began collaborating with the aforementioned Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford to study anti-Semitism. Support for their research by The American Jewish Committee was key, and contingent on including the Frankfurt School's Theodor Adorno in the group. Their book, The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford), was published in 1950 and became a seminal work in psychology and the social sciences. Their research revealed that anti-Semitism was not isolated, but was a function of a general ethnocentrism characterized by a distinct authoritarian personality structure. This personality type is weak and dependent and forfeits a genuine experiencing of the self and others in exchange for order and safety. Rigid stereotypes take the place of individual experience, creating a personality type lacking self-awareness and inner values. Relationships with others are predicated on power and success and are a means rather than an end, leading to a distinct prejudice against out-groups.

Frenkel-Brunswik's contribution to The Authoritarian Personality is not clear cut. There is no debate about her responsibility for the interview material and her application of psychoanalysis and empirical methods to the analysis of the interviews that subsequently distinguished prejudiced from unprejudiced individuals. In fact, she may well have been the senior author but was named second simply because the authors were arranged alphabetically. It is known that Adorno played a relatively minor role; Frenkel-Brunswik and Sanford were working on a paper in 1945 that would encapsulate the psychoanalytic formulations that would play a key part in the 1950 book. The Authoritarian Personality provided a blueprint for the interactions between parenting, personality, and ideology in understanding prejudice and is still relevant in understanding conventional morality and why some people defer to their superiors while presuming to be above their perceived inferiors.

Frenkel-Brunswik followed up this research with a study of prejudice in children and began a major study of aging before her life ended tragically. Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Egon Brunswik were devoted to one another but were childless. He committed suicide in 1955 after suffering with a long and painful bout of hypertension; she never quite got over the loss and began questioning her own career, particularly her devotion to logical positivism and psychoanalysis. With the death of her husband, there was nothing preventing Frenkel-Brunswik from being granted tenure at Berkeley. Her appointment was endorsed on December 4, 1957 and was to take effect the following July. However, her loss of Egon and resentment around aspects of her career related to her gender led to her suicide on March 31, 1958 by an overdose of barbital. Else Frenkel-Brunswik's achievements were subsequently acknowledged by the inclusion of her biography in Notable American Women.

by Lisa Held

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Else Frenkel-Brunswik

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Frenkel, E. (1936). Studies in biographical psychology. Character and Personality, 5, 1-34.

Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1939). Mechanisms of self-deception. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 409-420.

Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1940). Psychoanalysis and personality research. In Symposium on Psychoanalysis Seen by Analyzed Psychologists. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 35, 176-197.

Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1948). A study of prejudice in children. Human Relations, 1, 295-306.

Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1949). Intolerance of ambiguity as an emotional and perceptual personality variable. Journal of Personality, 18, 108-143.

Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1954). Psychoanalysis and the unity of science. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 80, 273-347.

About Else Frenkel-Brunswik

Smith, M. B. (1980). Frenkel-Brunswik, Else. In B. Sicherman, & C. H. Green (Eds.), Notable American women: The modern period, (pp. 250-252). Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Smith, M. B. (1990). Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1908 ‒ 1958). In A. N. O'Connell & N. F. Russo, (Eds.), Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook, (pp. 88-96). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Smith, M. B. (2000). Frenkel-Brunswik, Else (1908 - 1958). In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology, (p. 398). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.