Judy J. Johnson, PhD / October 25, 2010

Beyond a Shadow of Doubt: Unmasking an Unacknowledged Political Peril

Zealous political ideologues, religious fundamentalists who would merge the secular with the sacred, and bigots who vent their views on talk shows and the Internet—all undermine political and social stability. But there’s a greater, unspoken menace. Altering the best intentions of politics, science, economics, and religion, it imperils the course of history, yet seldom makes media headlines, not even during political elections when we should be most vigilant of its presence. Perhaps that’s because up until 2009, no social scientist had developed a comprehensive theory of the nature and manifestations of this menace, bunkered deep in the human brain.

Zealous political ideologues, religious fundamentalists who would merge the secular with the sacred, and bigots who vent their views on talk shows and the Internet—all undermine political and social stability. But there’s a greater, unspoken menace. Altering the best intentions of politics, science, economics, and religion, it imperils the course of history, yet seldom makes media headlines, not even during political elections when we should be most vigilant of its presence. Perhaps that’s because up until 2009, no social scientist had developed a comprehensive theory of the nature and manifestations of this menace, bunkered deep in the human brain.

Dogmatism.

I have been studying this personality trait for over twenty-five years and as far as I can tell, it isn’t going away anytime soon. We have all known people (some of whom we may be related to, or voted for) who act as if they’re the sole expert on a topic. They refuse to see things any other way because in their minds, they have nailed truth to the mat. Churchill said it well, “They won’t change their minds and they won’t change the topic.” And while most people associate dogmatism solely with religion, its arrogant arm reaches into all social institutions. At the interpersonal level, those who arbitrarily dismiss opposing ideas then proselytize their own, rule out second dinner invitations.

In the political domain, it is especially useful to familiarize ourselves with the features of dogmatism so that we are less likely to elect politicians whose minds are like the bed in the guestroom; always made up, seldom used. Since political institutions are designed to get the results they achieve, and since dogmatists solve complex problems with simple solutions that they defend with rigid certainty, electing dogmatic politicians surely jeopardizes social progress. And while some politicians are clever enough to feign open-minded consultation and collaboration, if we scratch the surface of their posturing they bleed dogmatism. Others may not clearly articulate their beliefs, which nonetheless hang out in their cortex, shaped and guided by emotions and behaviors that reinforce their political values and policies.

During my recent presentation at Cambridge University, UK, one Q & A participant asked, “Shouldn’t we be dogmatic about some beliefs?” This question gets at the heart of the matter. How do we differentiate passionate, open-minded believers from those whose eyes are blinkered by ideology and ignorance? When does commitment to a cause become zealous, closed-minded fanaticism?

Consider Uncle Joe, who emphatically believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old. His conviction is an empirically verifiable factual error, which in itself does not qualify him for the personality trait of dogmatism. If, however, Uncle Joe’s mistaken belief is embedded in the dogma of an entire belief system, and if he implacably clings to such dogma (tenets or beliefs that largely pertain to ethics and morality) in a manner that reflects a minimum of six out of thirteen proposed features of dogmatism, he is then considered to have the personality trait of dogmatism. After examining some of its features I think you’ll agree that we’re in trouble if Uncle Joe becomes an elected politician.

When is the last time you heard a politician comment, “Based on the evidence presented today, I will reconsider my position on this matter?” Dogmatism helps explain why such remarks are rare. Anxiety and an inability to tolerate uncertainty are two of its central features, which dogmatists cope with by closing their minds to conflicting views and pronouncing their truths with unyielding, arrogant certainty. Psychologically, this strategy works because it removes all ambiguity that would stir up anxiety.

A different tactic—compartmentalization—allows them to simultaneously support two logically incompatible beliefs. Sealing contradictory beliefs in isolated chambers enables them, for example, to give voice to equal opportunity yet deny or reduce funding to programs that help the disadvantaged. Politicians with this feature of dogmatism are imposters of reason who seldom acknowledge their inevitable doubts and conflicting political pressures.

Darkening the profile, dogmatic people find it difficult to distance themselves far enough from their core beliefs and emotions to recognize their own dogmatism, much less understand the psychological and social influences that pushed them in dogmatic directions. We can hardly imagine someone with this personality trait saying something like this:

“You know, I really am very narrow-minded and rigid. One of these days I should ask myself what I’m so afraid of. What’s so wrong with being absolutely wrong? And what’s so right with being absolutely right? Why do I get so angry with people who won’t admit I’m right and they’re wrong? Maybe there’s a lot wrong with being absolutely right.”

Such close encounters with their own closed minds are too close for comfort, which brings us to the emotional features of dogmatism.

It’s only within the last 25 years that psychologists have closely examined the impact of emotion on reason and concluded that when we’re anxious, frightened, or angry, we’re dumber. As Joseph LeDoux and others note, strong emotions bombard the mid-brain and block high-road analysis and reasoning—the work of the neocortex, or new brain. When we’re emotionally threatened it’s natural to believe that what we feel is right, is right, especially when we’re angry. In dogmatic minds, anxiety is frequently converted to anger in order to conceal the very anxiety that generated it. The mistaken assumption is that dictatorial bravado will mask their fears and bolster their identity as someone who absolutely knows what they’re talking about. Anger is a safe place to hide.

Another characteristic of dogmatism is the preoccupation with power and status that leads to dogmatic glorification of the" in" group and vilification of the “out” group. The powerful and wealthy are considered virtuous and deserving; their very presence leaves dogmatists awestruck, ingratiating, or easily intimidated. Conversely, dogmatic individuals condemn the poor; they’re social burdens who lack morals, intelligence, and self-discipline. These stereotypes work because absolute categories reduce ambiguity that for them, generates anxiety.

Among politicians, a more serious problem associated with dogmatism is dogmatic authoritarian aggression. Abundant research concludes that authoritarians view the world as a dangerous, fearful place; a consequence of what George Lakoff calls “the strict-parent family” in which authoritarian parents demand respect, unquestioning obedience, inflexible self-discipline, and strict adherence to conventional conduct and family values. Authoritarian parents control children with harsh punishment and many grow up to be mean-spirited toward people they judge inferior. They feel entitled to make their own rules, which they enforce without mercy. These are the self-righteous moralists who obey a higher authority that, according to their twisted logic, legitimizes their violence and violations of conventions and laws. Thus, aggressive authoritarians with the personality trait of dogmatism are doubly dangerous; so too are dogmatic authoritarian submitters.

Attracted to the bold certainty of authoritarian leaders are dogmatic submitters who do their bidding. Their willingness to parcel out their identity to authority figures and follow their orders to aggress against others reinforces aggressors’ dogmatism, authoritarianism, and grandiose self-importance. As such, aggressors and submitters play interdependent, reinforcing roles that propel allegiance and obedience.

In the final psychological analysis, dogmatism is not about the superiority of one belief system over another or one leader versus another.  And it’s not about ideology per se, or what people believe. Rather, dogmatism is about how people adopt, communicate, and enact their belief systems. Most importantly, it is about personal identity—fragile, brittle identity that is externally authored by influential authority figures. Consequently, if we are to clear much of the political debris that clutters the road to peace and democratic progress, we first need to recognize, accurately name, and understand the nature of dogmatism. Only then can we learn to monitor and change dogmatic tendencies within ourselves and our institutions—especially the political socialization and militarization of youth.

Failing that, dogmatism will persist, past injustices will be reignited, and future conflicts will escalate. Yet despite dogmatism’s legacy and ubiquity, I am all but certain that if we confront it from wide angles we can convert its perilous bark to a faint whimper. And elect more open-minded, progressive politicians.

Judy J. Johnson, PhD, is the author of “What’s So Wrong With Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief,” Prometheus Books, New York, 2009. She is a psychology professor at Mount Royal University, Calgary, AB, Canada.

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