Dogmatic people pose a problem. They resist ideas, and divide groups. Find out why eliminating dogmatism is more challenging than you might think.
Growing up, my oldest brother had several silly signs posted in his bedroom. One of them read, “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.”
That saying has stuck with me over the years. Comedian Bill Maher uses a similar line in one of his bits that goes, “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”
Most of us try not to think like that. Experience teaches us that making up our minds and refusing to listen to new information causes costly mistakes.
Think They Already Know the Truth
Yet, we’ve probably all met someone who tends to think that they already know the truth and don’t want to hear any contrary evidence. The term for people like this is “dogmatic.”
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science released a study this week from University College London that examined dogmatic people’s behaviour. The researchers wanted to look into thinking patterns that led people to cling to unyielding opinions.
Ph.D. candidate Lion Schulz is the lead author of the study. He explained the research goals this way, “Anecdotally, it seems that dogmatic people are less interested in information that might change their mind. However, it was unclear if this is because a specific opinion is of high importance to them or if more fundamental processes are at play that transcend specific opinions.”
Reluctant to Change Their Mind with New Data
Psychologists define dogmatic people as believing that their worldview is absolutely right. They’re also reluctant to change their mind, even in the face of new information.
Dogmatism poses problems in areas of life, like religion and politics. It leads to division and polarization inside groups and within society as a whole.
The investigators devised an experiment to look for dogmatic thinking patterns. They had 700 participants take part in a decision-making exercise.
700 Participants Took Part in Exercise
The researchers showed each subject two boxes with flashing dots. Participants were asked which square contained more spots.
Then, the team gave each testee a chance to check their answer. Subjects could choose to see a clearer version of the two boxes to verify their response before providing a final response.
This may sound simplistic, but that was part of the plan. Co-lead author Dr. Max Rollwage explained that “By using simple tasks, we were able to minimize motivational or social influences and pin down drivers of altered evidence processing that contribute to dogmatic beliefs.”
Questionnaires Measured Their Degree of Dogmatism
After the test, each participant completed a wide-ranging series of questionnaires that measured their political orientation and their degree of dogmatism.
Dogmatic people didn’t differ from others in how accurate their decisions were on the first pass. Everyone was about equally good at telling which box had the most dots in it.
The experiment got interesting when it came to who asked for more information before making up their mind. Participants classed as dogmatic were less likely to take advantage of the chance to check themselves by looking at the more visible version.
More Confident When Answer Was Ambiguous
The gap in the tendency to seek more information was more significant when the decision was unclear. In other words, the dogmatic people were far more confident than others when the correct answer was ambiguous.
Dr. Steve Fleming said, “Previous work has found that there is a close link between how confident we feel and whether or not we seek out new information. In the current study, we found that this link was weaker in more dogmatic individuals.”
The mindset that kept some subjects from seeking more information when in doubt made them less effective. Their final decisions were less accurate than those of their more curious peers.
Hard-Wired to Stick to Our Opinions
This seems to suggest that dogmatic people don’t subscribe to any particular life stance or political party. Some of us just seem to be hard-wired to stick to our opinions.
Dr. Fleming put it this way, “Real-world dogmatism isn’t just a feature of specific groups or opinions but may be associated with more fundamental cognitive processes.” This confirms what many of us have suspected based on experience. There can be stubborn dogmatists on both sides of an issue.
The bad news is that we can’t associate a predisposition to be dogmatic with any particular point of view. If we could, we could focus on educating and working with those groups to remind them of the importance of being open to new information as it arises.
Pose a Problem for Cultures
Instead, we find that dogmatic people come from all walks of life and stubbornly insist on a wide range of different views. Dogmatists pose a problem for cultures because they stand in the way of progress, and they tend to polarize the group.
The other pessimistic conclusion that we can draw from the study is that making more and better knowledge available doesn’t help. There’s never been information on the internet, in the media or at the public library. Still, some people will stick like glue to their current views.
“So Free to Decide if We Have Enough Evidence”
Mr. Schulz said, “This is particularly relevant today. We have never been so free to decide if we have enough evidence about something or whether we should seek out further information from a reliable source before believing it.”
Even so, we see increasing evidence of dogmatism and the polarization it causes in the news every day. Mr. Shulz added, “This mirrors many real-life situations – for example, when we hear a rumour but aren’t sure if it’s true. Do we share it, or do we check a credible source beforehand?”
The next step for the team is to look into the underlying thought processes that lead people to seek more information when they’re uncertain about something. Why do some of us fact check ourselves more carefully than others?
“It Might Be Wise to Check the Information Again”
Mr. Shulz concluded by saying, “In the end, it’s a cautionary tale, whether we think of ourselves as dogmatic or not: when uncertain, it might be wise to check the information again.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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