Monthly Archives: December 2013

On Dogmatism

SCENARIO 1: Your one-year-old child gives you a mischievous look, then with a delighted squeal he stumbles toward the hotel balcony—heading gleefully toward certain death. You rush and catch hold of him, but do you now give him a firm spanking to make sure this never happens again?

SCENARIO 2: There’s a bomb to be detonated in one hour somewhere downtown, and a member of the terrorist group is in your custody. If it’s likely that he knows something about the whereabouts of the bomb and how to dismantle it, should you torture him to extract information?


There may be disagreement among us in our answers to these example scenarios. But whatever your answers may be, the act of putting yourself in such situations hopefully draws your attention to the fact that our behaviors and reasoning are prone to become more severe and stereotypical in times of crisis. Even if you manage to use cool counter-reasoning to control these impulses, the impulses are real, and their felt salience is determined by the perceived power of the imminent threat.

In “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses bees as an analogy to explain human group behavior. When the hive of a bee colony is under attack, the bees frantically work to defend their territory from invaders. Similarly, when humans are stressed, and especially when under attack, we exhibit certain behaviors and attitudes that enhance conformity and control, and help us to fend off external threats.

This Crisis Mode has clear benefits for group survival amid chaos or hardship, although happiness and flexibility are not among those benefits. In times of stress, conformity for the sake of order and security takes precedence. Crisis is thought to have played a tremendous role in the forging together of human groups across kin. This included continual inter-group warfare, as well as extremely harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions. It has also played a role throughout the histories of all subsequent human civilizations, from the fortified city-states of ancient Greece, to the purging of polytheistic influence in the kingdom of Judea, to the rise of tyrants following various revolutions and coups. It will also likely factor into group responses around the world to calamities that arise in the years to come, from natural disasters to food shortages to new outbreaks of disease.

While our Crisis Mode is sometimes advantageous for basic group survival, there are clear disadvantages to having this state activated. Most notably, as in the examples above, the need to control the situation cuts off openness to alternative ideas, and a power differential is accentuated. The result is a rigidity of thinking, a type of absolute certainty that closes itself off to competing ideas. Any deviation from the established status quo is treated as a threat to group security. In instances where a threat is merely imagined or exaggerated, this is even more tragic. At best, innovation and creative problem solving efforts are needlessly crippled; at worst, someone who can’t help being an exception to group rule is punished for being a deviant, or an outside group is demonized and attacked.

So, this group Crisis Mode is the source of what many today call dogma or orthodoxy, or fundamentalism. While everyone is capable of having some shift to a more orthodox state due to stress or crisis, it does seem that some individuals are more prone than others to operate in chronic Crisis Mode. Discussed below are four personality traits that seem to be strongly associated with a dogmatic state of mind. All can be linked to a basic adaptive response to stressors, but can also feature more prominently as stable traits among certain people.

The first trait is neophobia, or the aversion to novel or unfamiliar experiences. This is rooted in our basic aversive response to certain foods, catering to the more cautious component of the omnivore’s dilemma—the need to protect ourselves from harmful substances. All of us can learn to be more or less aversive to novelty based on our experiences, but there is also a heritable contribution to one’s extent of openness or lack thereof. If someone is highly neophobic, they associate familiarity with a sense of order and control, and thus tend to guard themselves against novel situations or experiences. When unfamiliarity so readily triggers aversion, conformity to a monoculture becomes quite easy.  And if neophobia abounds in the group, the treatment of exceptions to the established norms as threats will be much more likely.

The second trait is an authoritarian disposition, which is fueled by a preoccupation with rank and status. Such individuals thrive in a well established hierarchy. They are unlikely to question the ideas or motives of their authorities, yet will pay no mind to people considered to be competitors or subordinates. Unlike more egalitarian minded individuals, authoritarians live by control and obedience rather than by consensus. The morality of an authoritarian type is primarily punitive; unwanted behavior is punished or prevented by threat of punishment, rather than by constructive criticism. This approach to social interaction is rooted in the authority of a parent over a child, but particularly when a parent feels that absolute control is essential. This can be triggered by a crisis like in Scenario 1, but it also reflects a personality type that perhaps results from an environment of chronic stress.

The third trait is a need for moral simplicity. All communities have shared narratives about who they are, what they value, and what they think is wrong. And to some extent, all of our morals are rooted in our identities and group affiliations. However, many of us recognize that real world applications of moral ideals can be fraught with contradictions and qualification, and so an appreciation for complexity and nuance is valued. However, there are some people who regard a nuanced morality as a weak or compromised morality; they equate moral certainty with group strength. For these people, there will always be a clear right answer, and a clear wrong answer. It is important to come across to others as decisive, and therefore morally strong. Naturally, since there is a right—and their group is always right!—that means that out-groups are clearly in the wrong.  Out-group demonization can result quite easily from this need to simplify moral reasoning.  The need for quick action in times of stress perhaps motivates people to impose order and regularity; reducing problems into the simple and predictable is one way to control for uncertainty. “Don’t panic, follow the drill, we’ll get through this.” Individuals who feel chronic stress or threat perhaps possess a constant need for this type of cognitive vigilance against potential threats to one’s sense of control, one’s measure of decisiveness.

Related to this, the last trait is a lack of personal insight, where one’s need to be perceived as in control trumps introspection or self awareness. There’s a responsibility to exude confidence like an advertisement of one’s virtue, which makes doubt or self-criticism things to avoid at all costs. Perhaps related to our ability to detach ourselves from misery via fantasy (“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…), the lack of personal insight results from one’s attachment to a cherished narrative, one that comforts or grants strength, one that masks real insecurities, one that must be protected from outside influence—or inside insights. A properly closed mind ensures consistency, conformity, and fealty to a group. Unfortunately, it stifles creativity, fosters contradiction and hypocrisy, and fails to address the root of any problem that arises. Compartmentalization of feelings and attitudes can be convenient when trying to cope with a crisis, or to avoid cognitive dissonance, but such willful escapism ultimately works against a healthy, happy lifestyle.

When thinking about how to reduce dogmatic rigidity in our society, it is crucial to consider the many factors that can influence individual development of an orthodox-like disposition. We must recognize that, to some extent, the disposition is heritable, driven by biological factors. It’s also likely driven by early developmental factors, such as prenatal stress, nutrition, and early attachment experience. These are of course tied to socio-economic status as well, with people in poorer neighborhoods more likely to experience stressors due to increased crime rates, unstable households, drug or alcohol abuse, and compromised nutrition. People in poorer areas are more likely, therefore, to be neophobic, authoritarian, less reflective, and to adhere to simple moral narratives than people of higher SES. There are many other factors to consider though, such as education and lifetime opportunities, all of which shape a person’s tendency to be more or less dogmatic. A real change would require an extensive long-term commitment to the improvement of our systems and communities, in order to eventually foster more open-mindedness and curiosity among our citizens in future generations. More on this topic in a later post.

We also have to think about the more subtle role of perceived threats rather than traditional stressors in contributing to dogmatism. The Christian fundamentalist and evangelical movements in America were founded by, and continue to thrive upon, a perceived attack upon a certain group way of life from foreign influence. Several waves of great social change, such as the rise of secularism, the Vietnam War protests, civil rights movements, feminism, gay rights activism, and the libertine revolution of the hippies, all made conservative Christians panic—and a reactionary wave of fervent, dogmatic fealty to perceived traditions began to grow in response. A coherent group narrative was forged, one that blamed the encroaching influence of secularism on the nation’s pervasive moral decay, and soon the language, education, and political inclinations of Christians across America were encouraged to conform in lockstep to this growing Moral Majority. Charismatic leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell strengthened Christian bonds across the nation by feeding their audiences with narratives of fear and imminent threat, making clear what was right for the group, and what was wrong.

The rise of the religious right in America was a huge impediment to social progress, to religious liberty, and to the advancement of science. Yet it’s nonetheless true that this wave of fundamentalism was catalyzed by some very rapid and dramatic social changes due to progressive influences. Without judging the rationale for what has already occurred, we can at least think about the cost of future progressive efforts for change in terms of social capital. The more dramatic and fast a social change is, the more costly it will be in terms of social capital, and the more likely a surge of dogmatic revanchism is to be expected. Also, if we can find ways to communicate to these groups in Crisis Mode that can allay their fears, then we can perhaps encourage them to be more like a rival team working toward a shared goal than as a mortal enemy.

Finally, we have to think about what the promotion of openness, flexibility, and independence of thought would mean for group living in general. While dogmatism works against happiness and healthy living, active immersion in a group is healthy and productive. An increase in openness and independence bears the risk of promoting anomie, diminishing group bonds due to a lack of unifying customs or a shared moral narrative. Similarly, a constant push for acknowledgment of diversity can result in a preoccupation with differences. However, these qualities can be put to use in a socially constructive way, namely via collaborative reasoning for problem solving. Such endeavors can be a team effort, driven by a shared sense of duty to work for the good of the nation. Tolerance and respect for diversity should be complimented by a focus on common humanity and shared activities. Although there will always be some proportion of people who react to stressors more severely than others—and there will be events in the future that can shift entire nations to a less flexible state of conformism—and this can sometimes be a good thing. If we can learn to address dogmatism not as a state of evil, or insanity, or even pathology, but rather as a sometimes adaptable trait that can get out of hand (and is arguably less and less adaptive as our societies grow in number, complexity and diversity), we have a better chance of keeping it under control.

And remember, make sure it’s a soft control, rather than absolute dominion over this seemingly foreign threat. If that Crisis Mode is triggered by progressives trying to do away with dogmatism, they will unfortunately be giving the dogmatists a taste of their own bitter medicine.


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Filed under History, Literalism, Nature of Truth, On Dogmatism, Social & Economic Factors