Science, politics, and religion are the most influential forces that alter the course of human history. Disrupting the best intentions of all three is a lesser-known, but no less potent force—dogmatism. Commonly known as pig-headed hide-bound red-necks (who never met a bigot they didn’t like), dogmatic people give momentum to intolerance and ideological extremism. While the pursuit of their dogmatic agendas may be as subtle as the ‘b’ in subtle, the effects are as blatant as the ‘b’ in blatant. Not religious zealotry, not terrorism, not fanaticism in general; dogmatism is the greatest threat to peaceful coexistence on this planet.
The ruthless regimes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of the Republic of Iran, Kim Jong Un, the dictatorial leader of North Korea, and the hard-line Islamic militancy of Afghanistan’s Taliban have recently received extensive media coverage. Still, investigative journalism has yet to examine the rigid certainty of dogmatism as a major psychological force that impacts these and other leaders’ political, economic, military, and religious judgments. Even in the domain of social science, knowledge of the psychological roots and expression of dogmatism is unfortunately lacking. What is the nature of this beast that, with one swipe of its arrogant claw, deeply scars the face of reason and imperils democracy?
In an effort to organize what has, until now, been a loosely organized set of intuitions and descriptions of dogmatism, this essay digs into the psychological dynamics that shape dogmatic thinking. It helps readers understand certain leaders and their enthusiastic followers who may meet the criteria for dogmatism, enabling them to expose those who rigidly adhere to one political direction that scores of citizens oppose.
Dogmatic people act as if they were the sole expert on a subject. Convinced that they have nailed truth to the mat, they refuse to change their minds—or the topic. We bristle at their inflexibility and wonder why they close their minds to different views. In its mildest form, dogmatism is the voice that asserts, “I am right; you are wrong.” Moderate dogmatism presents a stronger variation: “I am right; you are stupid.” Dangerous dogmatism enacts the conviction, “I am right; you are dead.” Whatever its intensity, dogmatism is a protective strategy that psychologically confirms, “I am absolutely right; therefore, absolutely safe.”
As such, very bright people are not immune to dogmatism, and post-secondary degrees don’t inoculate against it (though we can assume that intelligence and advanced education offer some protection). Many of us know scholars who stifle creative inquiry because they fear collaboration will fertilize a cross-section of ideas that would threaten their own. Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Intelligent, narrow-minded academics can master the art of appearing open-minded but scratch the surface of their posturing, and they bleed dogmatism. They are imposters of reason, and those with referential, influential, or direct power can dominate a field until their demise finally breathes new life into the discipline.
Problems begin when biological predispositions interact with social and cultural circumstances to insidiously convert dogma into the practice of dogmatism, thus shaping its thirteen characteristics that embody this definition: “Dogmatism is a personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional, and behavioral characteristics to personify prejudicial, closed-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty.”[i] As a trait, dogmatism endures across time and situation. We are not dogmatic on Monday and open-minded on Tuesday any more than we are extraverted on Friday and introverted on Saturday. Research on the stability of traits (or dispositions) reveals that if you are dogmatic at age 30, chances are you will not jump out of your cognitive ruts in middle age and beyond. The good news is, if you are open-minded at 30, you will likely remain that way.[ii]
Yet some of us are quite definite about our own beliefs, many of which reflect our circumstances of birth as much as anything. Authority figures pass down myths and ideologies that help us make sense of this mysterious world. Some of us passionately defend our beliefs through social activism, which raises the question: How can we differentiate passionate believers from dogmatic believers? The following indicators reveal that it is not what people believe that signals dogmatism; the key is why and how people adopt, uphold, and pronounce their belief systems.
A PORTRAIT OF DOGMATISM
Dogmatism has thirteen characteristics. We begin with the five cognitive characteristics and illustrative examples.
Cognitive Characteristics of Dogmatism
1) Because dogmatic people have an intolerance of ambiguity, they adopt beliefs as rigid truth, which removes all ambiguity and reduces their anxiety of being judged ignorant or unintelligent. Illustrative example: “Once I make up my mind about something, there’s no turning back.”
2) Subsequently, they use defensive cognitive closure when new ideas threaten their existing beliefs. Conflicting views are immediately judged and dismissed as “patently wrong” or “plain ridiculous.” These people do not close their minds because they cannot do the serious work of thinking. They close their minds to preserve their certainty, identity, and safety. Example: “In this country, there’s only one political party worth listening to.”
3) This brings us to rigid certainty. Rarely will dogmatic people acknowledge they are mistaken, even when presented with convincing evidence. To abandon certainty would require them to suspend an intolerance of ambiguity and open their minds, both of which threaten too much need—the need to prevail as right at all costs. A good litmus test for rigid certainty is the answer to this question: “What kind of evidence would it take for you to change your mind?”
4) By adulthood, creative cognitive carpentry has sealed off logically incompatible beliefs in separate, isolated chambers. This characteristic is known as compartmentalization, as illustrated by: “While I believe in democracy, I think freedom of speech in certain political and religious groups should be censored.”
5) A lack of personal insight, the last cognitive characteristic, combines with the first four to prevent the self-awareness necessary for dogmatic people to open their minds: no awareness, no conflict, no problem—at least for now. Dogmatic people cannot distance themselves far enough from their core beliefs and emotions to recognize their closed-mindedness, much less understand the psychological and social influences that pushed them in dogmatic directions. Close encounters with their own closed minds are too close for comfort, as revealed by this declaration: “If people don’t want to hear my point of view, that’s their problem.”
As we shall see, the behavior characteristics of dogmatism go well beyond occasional rants at the dinner table (though many of us have known people who show up uninvited for an important social occasion, and all we can do is hope against disaster).
Behavior Characteristics of Dogmatism
1) A preoccupation with power and status is seen in dogmatists who are hyper-vigilant for status symbols. Prominent people leave them awestruck, ingratiating, and easily intimidated because they are seen as powerful, virtuous, and highly intelligent; poverty symbolizes immorality, lack of discipline, and low intelligence, which fuels prejudice and discrimination as seen in their agreement with: “I’m really impressed by people who look like a million bucks.”
2) Glorification of the in-group; vilification of the out-group reflects an “us against them” fortress mentality. This reinforces the previous characteristic, either with idolatry and hero worship or intense wrath that violates human rights that stipulate equal protection by law. In positions of power, they make their own rules and unabashedly break the laws civilians must obey. Also, these people judge ideas and messages according to the messenger’s status, not its content. A dogmatic liberal and a dogmatic conservative who listened to the same speech by a government official would swiftly glorify or condemn it.
3) Dogmatic authoritarian aggression is one consequence of authoritarian parenting that demands respect, obedience, self-discipline, and strict adherence to conventional conduct. Children raised by such parents view the world as a dangerous, fearful place. In adulthood, if they gain access to power, they make their own rules and unabashedly break laws the rest of us follow. To illustrate: “They [Canadians] better hope the United States doesn’t roll over one night and crush them. They’re lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent.”[iii]
4) Dogmatic authoritarian submission is seen in those who admire the bold certainty of dogmatic authoritarian aggressors. Submitters prop up their aggressors’ fragile egos with unquestioning subservience; both are enmeshed in co-dependency. “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.”
5) Arrogant, dismissive communication reveals a shoot-and-reload style of conversing. Dogmatic people dominate the conversation. When others speak, they do not listen—they reload to shoot down opposing views. In their minds, this strengthens their own credibility while simultaneously entrenching their existing beliefs. Example: “Oh c’mon, anyone with half a brain knows that….” Such dogmatic proclamations are not really for their captive audience; they are for the captive mind that utters them. What appears as an external show of confidence is driven by insatiable internal demands.
Before presenting the final characteristics of dogmatism, it is worth noting that all thoughts and behaviors occur within a domain of emotions, three of which are central to dogmatism—anxiety, fear, and anger.
Emotional Characteristics of Dogmatism
1) Belief-associated Anxiety and Fear. We’re all familiar with the anxiety that interrupts focused thought and prevents us from putting things together. As Bruce Lipton notes, “The simple truth is, when we’re anxious or frightened, we’re dumber.”[iv] Thus, enduring, pervasive anxiety throughout childhood and adolescence creates cognitive distortions which, in adulthood, may be anchored more in the host’s imagination than reality. Simple questions become accusations; answers, lengthy defenses. As this example illustrates, challenges to core beliefs trigger earlier emotional reactions that continue to obstruct reason: “People who question my beliefs get on my nerves.”
2) Belief-associated Anger. Anger is a safe place to hide. By converting anxiety to anger, dogmatic people conceal the very anxiety that generated it. They mistakenly assume that angry bravado will mask anxiety and bolster their identity. Discussions are described as “fights” with winners and losers; those who differ are “fierce opponents.” Illustrative example: “I get angry with people who dare insult my intelligence.”
3) Existential Despair. This last emotional characteristic evolves from a lifetime of persistent anxiety, fear, and anger. Because dogmatic people are externally defined by dogma and authority, they lose their balance when the world of people and ideas falters. They despair about their inability to control events
that would keep their lives ordered and stable. Cynicism, disillusionment, and rigid pessimism move in—the cumulative effect of chronic anxiety and frustration that leads some to conclude, “Nothing I do will make any difference.”
In summary, these thirteen characteristics of dogmatism are driven by needs and deficiencies we all experience—psychological dynamics that are intensified and prolonged by troublesome histories. Some people become narcissistic or psychopathic, suffer from depression or substance abuse, and others become dogmatic.
Of necessity, this essay is limited to descriptions of dogmatism; space restrictions prevent scrutiny of the underlying, influential causes that shape its trajectory. However, because dogmatic individuals shape social institutions, if we do not learn to recognize, monitor, and change dogmatic tendencies within ourselves, our children, and our institutions, especially the political socialization and militarization of youth, dogmatism will persist, past injustices will be reignited, and future conflicts will escalate. Peaceful tomorrows cannot be fashioned by dogmatists who enact closed-minded ideologies today. Yet, I am all but certain that if we confront this problem from wide angles, we will convert dogmatism’s bark into a faint whimper.
[i] Johnson, J. J. What’s So Wrong With Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief. New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, p. 41.
[ii] McCrae, R. R., and P. T. Costa, Jr. Personality in Adulthood: A Five-Factor Theory Perspective. New York: Guillford, 2003.
[iii] Ann Coulter commenting on Canada’s failure to join American forces against Iraq. Fox News, Hannity & Colmes, November 30, 2004.
[iv] Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief. New York: Hay House, 2008, p. 120.
© Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.
Judy J. Johnson is Professor Emerita, Psychology, Mount Royal University, Calgary, AB. She has authored a nonfiction and fiction book on dogmatism, been published in major journals and newspapers, given numerous talks at Canadian and international universities, including Cambridge, UK, and been interviewed by PBS, NY, the CBC, and others. (dogmatism.ca)
MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #77
JUNE 27, 2023 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #77 / "ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY IN UNCERTAIN TIMES" © 2023 JUDY J. JOHNSON