Q: What is dogmatism?
Johnson: Dogmatism is the practice of pronouncing oneís beliefs with rigid, arrogant certainty. Absolute certainty. Psychologically, it is considered a personality trait in which various aspects of evolution, biology, culture, and social learning predispose people to act as if they were the sole expert on a subject. Even in the face of convincing evidence that should give reason to pause, dogmatic people will not, as Churchill said, “change their minds or change the topic.” They simply refuse to see things any other way, and fail to consider the possibility they might be wrong.
This book outlines thirteen assumed features of dogmatism – 5 cognitive, 3 emotional, and 5 behavioural (a minimum of 6 out of 13 characteristics are presumed necessary to determine trait presence). Each feature is clearly explained and illustrated with comments that will be familiar to readers. Four broad categories of causes are expanded on in nine chapters (the Chapter Titles link summarizes theories of causal influences). This is the first lengthy treatise on a theory of dogmatism so in that sense, the book breaks new ground. In that sense too, it will generate controversy, which is a necessary component for the advancement of any new theory, especially one on dogmatism. I dare not be dogmatic about dogmatism – the irony of ironies.
Q: When I hear the word dogmatism or dogmatic, I think of religion. Is that too narrow an interpretation?
Johnson: Dogmatism is the practice of clinging to any dogma (or cluster of tenets) that is presumed to have authoritative power. People can be dogmatic about belief systems around religion, politics, marriage and the family, gender relations, and other cultural attitudes and traditions. Dogma that has become widespread and institutionalized is more commonly referred to as ideology, which can also be adhered to dogmatically. As such, the practice of dogmatism is pervasive; it occurs in many institutional domains other than religion.
Q: The subtitle of your book is: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief. Dogmatic people are rigid and obnoxious, but are they really dangerous?
Johnson: They can be. Dogmatism occurs in all social institutions, beginning with the family where role models of dogmatism (primarily parents) reward closed-minded thinking and punish open-mindedness. Children are taught not to think for themselves, which endangers their psychological growth, especially cognitive, emotional and social intelligence.
In the political realm, dogmatic leaders who have the characteristic (or subtrait) of dogmatic authoritarian aggression issue orders to aggress against others, which moves their dogmatic influence beyond the interpersonal into the public domain. Iím reminded of Albert Camus who warned, “To insure the adoration of a theorem for any length of time, faith is not enough, a police force is needed as well.” And, as Altemeyer notes, “something else is at work here, for authoritarian aggression is done in the name of some higher authority. This authority gives the attack legitimacy in the minds of the aggressors, and they will often say they are proud of what they didÖ[but] what they did was almost always extraordinarily cowardly.”
Less dangerous are the dogmatic leaders who pursue an arrogant course of action that denies the importance of transparency and accountability, both of which imperil social and democratic progress and cultural stability.
As well, religious leaders who unquestioningly adopt a self-righteous, moralistic stance can promote an intolerance of difference that fuels prejudice, discrimination, cultural divisions, and religious wars.
Finally, corporate dogmatism that enshrines competition and the pursuit of financial and material gain disadvantages the many and privileges the few. These are only some of the dangerous consequences of dogmatism within social institutions. But the greatest danger is dogmatic authoritarian aggression and dogmatic authoritarian submission that prevent open-minded exchanges of ideas among disparate groups. Without flexibility of thought and open-minded collaboration, tension reduction and long-term peaceful solutions are inauspicious.
Q: Dogmatic people seem blind to their own rigid certainty and the offensive way they come across. Why is that?
Johnson: One characteristic of dogmatism is a lack personal insight. Dogmatists' pervasive anxiety and extraordinary need to be right blinds them to common social nuances. They are so preoccupied with defending their views, trying to impress others, and feeling safe in a confusing world, that they fail to take an easy reading on peopleís reactions to their rigid pronouncements and emotional defensiveness. However, there are 13 characteristics of dogmatism – lack of personal insight is just one. People can be quite aware they are dogmatic (although they would likely describe themselves as “opinionated” or “stubborn”), but if they also have any 5 of the remaining 12 features, I think we can safely assume they have the personality trait of dogmatism.
Q: What makes them so unyielding; so absolutely certain about their beliefs?
Johnson: Your question gets at the nitty-gritty of dogmatism. What people believe is of much less significance than why and how they develop and hold their beliefs. There are many contributing psychological factors that influence why people become dogmatic – the trait is multidimensional. My book explores the why and how of dogmatism by summarizing various ideas, including contributions from many personality theorists, evolutionary psychology, social learning theory, biology, and neuroscience.
Few of us understand how extremely difficult it is to stretch our thinking as far as humanly possible, especially about beliefs that touch us deeply. It's easy to do a demolition act on that with which we disagree and then feel smugly superior or self-righteous about our views. It's also easy to acknowledge the importance of being broad minded and act as if we're open to new ideas and value collaboration. But when faced with difficult social problems, do we know how to listen – fully listen such that we are attuned to others without feeling the need to jump in and correct or replace their views with our own. Dogmatic people use the shoot-and-reload style of communication; small wonder they are seen as obnoxious.
Q: Does your book, Whatís So Wrong with Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief address dogmatism in the context of specific, modern-day problems?
Johnson: The last chapter of my book, Where To From Here? provides some practical suggestions to attack dogmatism, root and branch. In it, I make some recommendations for parents, educators, and politicians, but in general, my book does not delve into the polemics of specific problems. That would require another book (or books) in itself. I propose a theory of dogmatism that readers can then apply to unique occurrences of dogmatic belief – individual, social, and cultural. I should stress that this book simply outlines a theory that draws from many acclaimed theorists and research on related ideas; much empirical research is necessary to substantiate its assumptions.
I hope that Iíve presented my views in a writing style that is professional in tone yet conveys ideas in a clear, engaging manner. Readers will not require special knowledge of psychology to grasp the overall theory. Curiosity alone will do.
Q: What motivated you to write a book on dogmatism?
Johnson: For more than twenty years I've wondered why nothing substantial has been written on the underlying psychological nature of dogmatism. In 1960, Milton Rokeach wrote The Open and Closed Mind in which he developed an inaugural treatise on dogmatism, but in that book he devoted only a few pages to its presumed causal influences (most of the book consists of research findings on the measurement of dogmatism). Rekindling discussions about this timely topic seems long overdue.
Several psychologists have used Rokeach’s Dogmatism Scale to conduct research on dogmatism in various domains, and Bob Altemeyer has developed a more recent, robust measure of dogmatism, but to date, no one has generated a theory about plausible causes that shape this brittle personality trait. Hopefully my book will launch that discussion – the livelier the better.
The world is run by dogma and as far as I can tell, dogmatism isn't going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, dogmatic leaders with imperialistic ambitions continue to foment crimes against humanity, including systemic racism, poverty, gender discrimination, war, and genocide – all consequences of closed-minded thinking that disadvantages more than half the human race, particularly women and children.
In the domain of religion, dogmatism knows no boundaries, and dogmatic religious zealots who use government legislation and educational policies to impose their beliefs on others are antidemocratic and discriminatory. Similarly, strident dogmatic atheists who arbitrarily dismiss all believers as ignorant or naive display a level of intolerance that tests my own.
It’s beginning to sound like I’m going on a dogmatic rant against dogmatism, but I feel strongly that humanity is not paying enough attention to this worrisome personality trait. More important than my own litany of beliefs, beefs, and biases is an understanding of the deep psychological underpinnings and functional nature of dogmatism. The issue here is closed minds versus open minds; dogmatism versus reason. It is not about the superiority of one political or religious system over another, or one leader versus another.
The challenge is to open our minds about dogmatic thought – first and foremost our own. Humility and humanity are largely at stake, for as Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Doubt requires humbleness, and if more of us were comfortable with less certainty, we would be better equipped to confront the ideological extremism of totalitarian regimes, zealous religious fundamentalism, terrorist movements, and fanaticism in general.
This book journeys into our dark side. The voyage is intricate but rewarding, for personal experiences and learning shape personality traits that become manifest in social institutions. An understanding of the psyche, from which social relationships and institutional mandates evolve, offers the promise of greater open-minded clarity about our thoughts, feelings, and deeds – individually and collectively.
Q: Are you optimistic that we can rid the world of dogmatism?
Johnson: Before we can solve any psychological problem we need to first understand the fundamental nature of its origins. That's a mighty big task when it comes to dogmatism, but there's plenty of evidence that the species is capable of unraveling the mysteries of complex personality traits. Totally eliminating dogmatism however, seems unrealistic at this stage of our evolutionary history. Still, Iím optimistic that with sustained focus and the commitment to designate the necessary resources to targeted groups – parents, educators, governments, and others – we can meet this challenge so that each new generation can experience the flexible splendor of an open mind. Without that commitment Iím afraid that we will increase our vulnerability to manipulation by those who knowingly exploit our complacency or manipulate our fears such that we constrict our thinking and become oblivious of dogmatic agendas – agendas that clutter the road to peace and democratic progress.
Valuable research is being done in many areas, including social psychology, political psychology, neuroscience, theories of emotion, cognitive psychology, developmental theories, and social learning. All theories and research in these areas have some relevance for the study of dogmatism, but much work remains. I hope that the ideas in my proposed theory of dogmatism will come alive in innovative dialogue and future research that will refine the theory. Inspired analyses will offer promise for a compassionate world that expands open-minded creativity, enhances social relationships, advances careers, and promotes dignity for all.
The theory of dogmatism presented here is a possible start in that direction, for I am all but certain that if we confront the problem of dogmatism from wide angles we will soften its bark into a faint whimper.
I invite readers to click on my Blog on Dog link and add their comments, concerns, and ideas so that together, we can enrich the dialogue on dogmatism.