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Beyond a Shadow of Doubt: Political Certainty in Uncertain Times

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. Churchill described them well: “They won’t change their minds and they won’t change the topic.” The personality trait that drives their adamant, rigid certainty doesn’t come under the radar of mainstream media – not even during elections when we should be most vigilant of its presence.

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. Churchill described them well: “They won’t change their minds and they won’t change the topic.” The personality trait that drives their adamant, rigid certainty doesn’t come under the radar of mainstream media – not even during elections when we should be most vigilant of its presence. Disrupting the best intentions of politics, science, economics and religion, its force motivates zealous political ideologues, intolerant religious fundamentalists and bigots who vent their views on talk shows and the Internet. While it alters the course of history, up until 2009, no social scientist had developed a comprehensive psychological theory of its nature and manifestations.


Often referred to as closed- or narrow-mindedness, the first psychological treatise on dogmatism was written in 1960 by psychologist Milton Rokeach who wrote “The Open and Closed Mind.” This book consists mainly of research studies that applied Rokeach’s Dogmatism Scale to test his rather loosely organized features of dogmatism. Years later, that same book launched my own 25-year study that resulted in two graduate theses and a book on dogmatism – all of which led me to conclude that, as far as I can tell, dogmatism isn’t going away anytime soon. In particular, economic and political dogmatism is the bottleneck on freedom’s horn of plenty, and although most people associate this trait solely with religion, its arrogant voice impacts all social institutions (at the interpersonal level, it rules out second dinner invitations).

Given that public institutions are designed to get the results they achieve, if we elect dogmatic politicians we can expect them to pursue rigid agendas and solve complex problems with simple solutions that jeopardize progress. It would, therefore, be helpful to understand dogmatism’s key features, so that we don’t vote for politicians whose minds are like the bed in the guestroom – always made up, seldom used. Few in number, but powerful in influence, the clever ones feign open-minded consultation and collaboration, but scratch the surface of their posturing and they bleed dogmatism. The danger lies in their underlying beliefs that shape rigid values – values that are seldom clearly articulated, yet determine the policies and laws that codify social policies and cultural morality.

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 or ignorance? When does commitment to a cause morph into zealous dogmatism?

Over time, myths shape dogma (beliefs or tenets pertaining to ethics and morality) that determines entire belief systems. If these systems become widespread and institutionalized, they are referred to as ideology (defined as a philosophy, or principles that influence society). Those individuals who rigidly adopt and adamantly pronounce ideological doctrines are considered dogmatic, which Oxford defines as “given to imposing or asserting personal opinions; arrogant; intolerantly authoritative.” Johnson proposes a psychological definition: “Dogmatism is a personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional and behavioral features to personify prejudicial, closed-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty.” Like other personality traits, dogmatism is assumed to endure across time and situation – people are not open-minded on Monday but closed-minded on Tuesday any more than they are extroverted only on Fridays.

Robert McCrae and Lewis Goldberg, notable trait psychologists, suggest that traits persist because their development originates in biology that, in turn, is influenced by social learning such that together, they groove unique patterns of thoughts, emotions and behavior. Examples include friendliness, conscientiousness, stubbornness, open-mindedness and dogmatism – to name a few among many. Since a minimum number of related features are generally necessary to determine trait presence, it is suggested that a person has the trait of dogmatism if he or she reveals six out of 13 such features. In this sense, although a preoccupation with power and status is one characteristic of dogmatism, not all dogmatic people demonstrate this obsession. But all of them have one cognitive feature in common – they simplify the complex.

Consider an imaginary Aunt Martha, who grinds her axe about parents who allow their children unsupervised, unlimited time on the computer. She is opinionated about her belief, but she’s not dogmatic unless she consistently portrays at least six of its prominent features. What about Billy-Bob, who emphatically believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old? If his belief, which is an empirically verifiable, factual error, is embedded in the dogma of an entire belief system that he implacably clings to in a manner that profiles several features of dogmatism, Billy-Bob’s closed-mindedness is a stable trait. I think you’ll agree that, after examining some of dogmatism’s key features, we’re in trouble if he becomes an elected politician. Let’s examine dogmatism’s core features.

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 that dogmatists cope with by closing their minds to conflicting views and pronouncing their “Truths” with unyielding, arrogant certainty. In so doing, they remove all ambiguity that would otherwise 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 impostors of reason who seldom examine or acknowledge their conflicting political values.

Darkening the portrait, dogmatic people often 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 Billy-Bob 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 is 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 especially right 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 here is that dictatorial bravado will mask their fears and bolster their identity as someone who absolutely knows what they’re talking about. Anger can be a safe place to hide.

Another feature embedded in dogmatism’s cluster of features is a preoccupation with power and status, which reflects a glorification of the “in” group and vilification of the “out” group. The powerful and wealthy are considered virtuous and deserving; their very presence can leave dogmatists awestruck, ingratiating or easily intimidated. Conversely, they may denounce the poor as social burdens who lack morals, intelligence and self-discipline. These stereotypes work because absolute categories reduce ambiguity that, in dogmatic minds, 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. These parents control their children with harsh punishment and many grow up to be mean-spirited toward people they judge inferior. As Bob Altemeyer notes, they feel entitled to make their own rules, which they enforce without mercy. Some are self-righteous moralists who obey a higher authority that, according to their twisted logic, legitimizes violence and violations of conventions and laws.

In positions of political power, their explicit goal may be to provide citizens equal opportunities, strengthen democracy or bolster the economy, but their implicit goal is to gain power in order to fortify and preserve their identity, or achieve what Robert J. Lifton calls “revolutionary immortality.” Kim Il-sung, who declared himself the Eternal President of North Korea, is a classic example of dogmatic authoritarian aggression. Such leaders are doubly dangerous; so, too, are their dogmatic authoritarian submitters.

Attracted to the bold certainty of authoritarian aggressors are the dogmatic authoritarian submitters who do their bidding. Submitters parcel out their identity to authority figures whose orders to aggress against others they blindly obey, thus reinforcing their aggressors’ dogmatism, authoritarianism and grandiose self-importance. As such, both submitters and aggressors play interdependent roles that strengthen their dogmatic allegiance to a cause.

Finally, communication (verbal and nonverbal) is derivative of thought. Anxiety impairs the quality of both. We’re all familiar with arrogant pronouncements that may simply be gauche attempts to communicate, but arrogant, dismissive communication – another behavioral feature of dogmatism – is a serious problem. This characteristic has, as Simon Blackburn suggests, a thunder and conviction that betrays anxiety. Examples include: “Oh c’mon! Anyone with half a brain knows that….” Or, “Look! I need you to understand that….” And this one, guaranteed to short circuit romance, “Right! Of course I’m right! What’s the matter with you? ” Believing that verbal audacity will strengthen their credibility, they make adamant assertions that indulge the captive mind that pronounces, not the captive audience that hears. Complicating matters, arrogant, dismissive communicators may be unaware of the gestures and facial expressions that transcend their words and provide their more socially attuned, insightful listeners with additional, unintended psychological information.

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. More importantly, it is about personal identity – fragile, brittle identity that is externally authored by influential authority figures. As such, if we are to clear much of the debris that clutters the road to peace and democratic progress, it would benefit all of us if politicians and the electorate that grants them power, recognized and understood the nature of dogmatism. Perhaps, we could then monitor and change dogmatic tendencies within ourselves and our institutions – especially the political socialization and militarization of youth.

Failing that, dogmatism will stall social progress, reignite past injustices and escalate future conflicts. Yet, despite its legacy and ubiquity, I am all but certain that if we confront dogmatism from wide angles, we can convert its perilous bark to a faint whimper. And elect open-minded politicians.

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