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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Dogmatism refers to the inclination of some individuals to assume their beliefs are correct. That is, according to Rokeach (1954, 1960), some people recognize their beliefs, assumptions, and expectations might be misguided. They adopt these beliefs tentatively, updating these assumptions in response to additional information. Other people, in contrast, assume their beliefs are absolutely correct. Their assumptions and expectations are relatively impervious to persuasion or information--the epitome of dogmatism. They often seem rigid, defensive, biased, annd disdainful, for example.

Many conditions or characteristics can influence the likelihood of dogmatism. For example, when working memory is impeded--that is, if individuals cannot retain, consider, and utilize many concepts and ideas at the same time--dogmatism increases (Brown, 2007).

Properties of dogmatism

As summarized by Johnson (2009), 13 properties are prevalent in people who exhibit dogmatism. These properties include cognitive, emotional, and behavioral characteristics.

Cognitive characteristics

Individuals who exhibit dogmatism often demonstrate five characteristics: intolerance of ambiguity, defensive cognitive closure, rigid certainty, compartmentalization, and limited personal insight (see Johnson, 2009). First, they attempt to shun ambiguity and uncertainty, seeking conviction and clarity. They seek people who express firm, unwavering beliefs. They prefer groups in which everyone shares the same opinions (see also preference for consistency).

Specifically, compared to other people, dogmatic individuals attempt to minimize inconsistencies. They do not likely to contemplate inconsistent, incompatible, or conflicting beliefs and thoughts. In response to such contradictions, they disregard or trivialize particular tenets or assumptions (e.g., Hunt & Miller, 1968;; Kleck and Wheaton, 1967, Leone, 1989).

Second, to shun ambiguity, they prefer to assume that only one ideology or belief is correct. They do not entertain the possibility their assumptions are incorrect. If religious, for example, they believe the bible or scriptures of their faith is incontrovertible. If they espouse an egalitarian philosophy, they despise conservative perspectives, and vice versa.

Third, their beliefs are rigid. They are entirely impervious to information that contradicts their opinions. They are certain they are correct, and thus do not consider further information, potentially manifesting as a confirmation bias. They also admire leaders who maintain their beliefs.

These inclinations were verified by Davies (1993, 1998). Participants were exposed to information that contradicts their original beliefs about a topic. They were then asked to express their beliefs after this information was presented as well as to identify reasons that contradict their beliefs. Relative to other participants, dogmatic individuals were less inclined to update their beliefs. They were also not as likely to recognize insights that contradict these beliefs. Indeed, as Davies (1998) showed, after individuals expressed one belief, they were less likely to express a contradictory assumption later.

To illustrate, as Leone (1989) shown, when exposed to information that counters their existing opinions, dogmatic individuals are especially inclined to merely neglect these insights. Alternatively, they perceive the information as irrelevant or insignificant.

Fourth, they show a property called compartmentalization: They are able to isolate conflicting thoughts from one another and, thus, remain oblivious to the contradictions in their philosophies and beliefs. They might embrace freedom of speech, but simultaneously believe that some people should not be granted the right to express their opinions. They might believe that God accepts everyone, but nevertheless perceive homosexuality as evil.

Finally, their insight into themselves is limited: They seem oblivious to their flaws and shortcomings. They do not like to reflect upon their problems, mistakes, or regrets, and they certainly avoid psychotherapy. They feel they are not treated with the respect they deserve.

Denny Doodlebug Problem

Rokeach, McGovney, and Denny (1955) developed the Denny Doodlebug Problem to illustrate the cognitive style of dogmatic individuals. Participants are informed that a hypothetical creature, Joe Doodlebug, can jump north, east, south, and west but not diagonally. He cannot change this route until he has jumped four times in this direction--and can move only by jumping at various distances. He cannot turn around.

Some food is placed three feet West of Joe--farther than his diameter, while he is facing north. Joe recognizes correctly he must jump four times to retrieve this food. The participants must uncover the rationale that Joe followed.

To solve this problem, participants must update several existing beliefs. First, Joe does not need to face the food to retrieve this item. Second, although facing north, Joe can jump sideways or backwards. Third, Joe can stop to eat the food, even before completing a sequence of jumps.

The participants are encouraged to articulate their thoughts as they consider this problem. If they have not solved the problem in 10 minutes, one of the three novel beliefs are presented. If needed, the two other beliefs are presented after 15 or 20 minute respectively. The time that is needed to overcome, and then to utilize, these three novel beliefs is recorded.

The solution is that Joe has already jumped once to the East. Hence, he must jump three more times to the east before jumping to the West and retrieving the food.

If individuals report elevated levels of dogmatism, they do not utilize these beliefs as rapidly and thus need a longer time to solve the problem (Rokeach, McGovney, & Denny, 1955;; Rokeach, 1960). Interestingly, anxiety also compromises performance on this task (Fruchter, Rokeach, & Novak, 1958).

Emotional characteristics

Dogmatism is also characterized by three emotional characteristics: Association between beliefs and anxiety or fear, association between beliefs and anger, as well as existential despair (see Johnson, 2009). First, discussions or reflections about their beliefs can elicit anxiety or fear. If their beliefs are challenged or questioned, they often seem especially agitated and uneasy. Consequently, they often avoid contexts in which their beliefs might be queried. Hence, dogmatism seems to represent an attempt to foster certainty and to curb anxiety.

Second, in addition to anxiety and fear, they might also experience unwarranted anger as soon as their beliefs are challenged or tenuous. They seem defensive, aggressive, hostile, and antagonistic, arguably a response that conceals their anxiety or fear.

Third, they often feel their life is meaningless, called existential angst or despair (see also terror management theory). They feel their actions cannot shape the world& they feel the world is chaotic, vacuous, and uncaring.

Behavioral characteristics

Five behavioral characteristics also correspond to dogmatism: a fixation with power and status, biases towards their own group, authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission (see also right wing authoritarianism, and arrogance (see Johnson, 2009). In particular, they often enact behaviors that are intended to boost their power and status, arguably to an obsessive extent. They seek desperately to accumulate wealth and affluence. They are very sensitive to hierarchy, believing that members of elevated echelons should be treated with deference. They are very materialistic.

Second, they perceive their own groups or collectives as superior to other groups or collectives. They often perceive members of rival organizations or religions as immoral or incompetent. They regard their own constituency as ethical, diligent, or intelligent in comparison. They might, for example, thus assume that only one religion is correct. They dismiss other religions or demographic groups.

Third, they show authoritarian aggression, one of the three facets of right wing authoritarianism. They believe that members of other groups, or people who violate regulations, should be punished and defeated. They feel these people should suffer. They feel that rights should be eliminated from prisoners, for example.

Fourth, they demonstrate authoritarian submission, another facet of right wing authoritarianism. They feel that people should submit to authority. They assume that leaders should be followed rather than questioned. They believe that leaders deserve exclusive rights and special privileges.

Indeed, Rokeach (1954, 1960) recognized that dogmatism was similar to right wing authoritarianism. Nevertheless, unlike right wing authoritarianism, dogmatism does not assume any specific content. For example, dogmatic individuals do not necessarily embrace conservative principles (cf., Goldstein &. Blackman, 1978).

Finally, their style of communication is arrogant and defensive. Their remarks are often dismissive, disdainful, and contemptuous.

Determinants of dogmatism

Several studies have examined the antecedents to dogmatism. Overall, dogmatism is often assumed to represent an attempt to prevent anxiety and other negative emotions (for further insights, see the related concept of right wing authoritarianism). In contrast, dogmatism does not seem to be associated with demographic characteristics like gender, age, religion, education, or ethnicity (Brown, 2007).

Dogmatism is inversely related to the concept of openness to experience (Tittler, 1974), a key dimension of the five factor model of personality. Indeed, as Davies (2005) maintains, dogmatism might represent a subset of this factor. Hence, antecedents to openness to experience might curb dogmatism as well. Similarly, anxiety evokes many of the characteristics of dogmatism (e.g., Fruchter, Rokeach, & Novak, 1958). Thus, determinants of anxiety might also increase dogmatism.

Working memory

As Brown showed (2007), dogmatism is negatively correlated with measures of verbal memory. Specifically, if individuals cannot remember a series of words or phrases readily, levels of dogmatism tend to increase.

Specifically, in this study, participants were exposed to a set of sentences. The last word was missing from each sentence. Individuals had to identify this word as well as remember all the answers. This task assesses the phonological loop of working memory, integral to language comprehension. Individuals who could perform this task well were not as likely to exhibit dogmatism, as measured by Rokeach's Dogmatism Scale.

To explain this finding, Brown (2007) alluded to the model that Rokeach (1960) proposed to characterize dogmatism. According to Rokeach (1960), individuals develop a belief system, representing all the assumptions and tenets they regard as true. In addition, they form a disbelief system, representing all the assumptions and tenets they regard as false. In dogmatic people, these two systems are isolated from one another. That is, individuals do not uncover connections between beliefs and disbeliefs. Consequently, they might not recognize contradictions. They might believe that "democracy is appropriate" but not believe that "everyone should be granted the right to vote", oblivious to the inconsistency in their assumptions.

According to Brown (2007), when the working memory of individuals is limited--that is, if individuals cannot readily retain and transform many ideas or concepts at the same time--their capacity to compare distinct beliefs diminishes. Individuals might not be able to contrast several beliefs with one another& they might not able to compare recent evidence with existing assumptions effectively. They cannot consider several distinct beliefs and insights at once. Contradictions are disregarded.

Mechanisms that underpin dogmatism

Compartmentalization of beliefs and disbeliefs

A paradigm called release from proactive inhibition has also been applied to examine the cognitive underpinnings of dogmatism (Davies, 2005). Typically, in this paradigm, four triplets of words are presented. One triplet might be daisy, rose, and orchards. The first three triplets often correspond to the same category, such as flowers. The fourth triplet sometimes corresponds to another category, such as animals. Next, participants complete a distracting activity, before attempting to recall all 12 words.

Usually, participants cannot readily recall words from the second or third triplet. Items in the first triplet interfere with memory of items in the next two triplets, because of their similarity--a pattern called proactive inhibition. If the last triplet corresponds to a different category, however, participants can recall these words, called release from proactive inhibition.

Davies (2005) presented one version of the task in which the final triplet represented a category that was similar to, but distinct, from the previous triplets. The final triplet, for example, might have represented flowers, whereas the previous triplets might have represented fruit. In this variant of the task, release from proactive inhibition was particularly pronounced in dogmatic individuals. Because they compartmentalize distinct beliefs and concepts, they do not recognize the similarity between flowers and fruit. Hence, release from proactive inhibition is elevated. If the final category was very different to the previous categories, this difference between dogmatic and open individuals diminished.

This finding is consistent with the proposition, proposed by Rokeach (1954, 1960), that only belief and disbelief systems are segregated in dogmatic individuals. That is, flowers and fruit represent opposite poles of some dimensions, such as "edible". On this dimension, flowers correspond to the disbelief system, and fruit corresponds to the belief system. People do not believe that flowers are edible, but believe that fruit is edible. Hence, these two concepts are segregated.

Measures of dogmatism

Rokeack developed a measure of dogmatism, sometimes called the D scale or Rokeack Dogmatism Scale. This scale, comprising 40 items, measures that extent to which individuals are dogmatic rather than flexible in their beliefs. Nevertheless, this scale is not usually considered sufficiently reliable or valid. As Altemeyer (1996) outlined, the items did not correlate sufficiently with each other& furthermore, no reverse scored items were included.

Altemeyer (1996) developed an alternative conceptualization of dogmatism, called the Authoritarian Specter. This construct was defined as unfounded certainty and fixed beliefs and measured with the DOG scale. Internal consistency approached .90 and was highly associated with right wing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and zealous beliefs (for evidence on the validity of this measure, see Crowson, DeBacker, & Davis, 2008).

Related concepts

Apart from right wing authoritarianism, dogmatism seems to be similar to several other concepts, such as uncertainty orientation (e.g., Driscoll, Hamilton, & Sorrentino, 1991;; Sorrentino, Short, & Raynor, 1984). Uncertainty orientation, in which individuals seek novel and unpredictable situations, striving to resolve rather than avoid contradictions, seems to represent the converse of dogmatism. When uncertainty orientation is elevated, for example, individuals are especially likely to recall information about people that contradict stereotypes or expectations (Driscoll, Hamilton, & Sorrentino, 1991).

According to Davies (2005), dogmatism might be associated with self compartmentalization, in which individuals perceive some facets of their life entirely negatively and other facets of their life entirely positively. That is, dogmatism also represents a form of compartmentalization. However, unlike self compartmentalization, dogmatic individuals also segregate information that is not about their own characteristics. They also segregate information that is not positive or negative but merely neutral beliefs.


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