What's So Wrong with Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief

What's So Wrong with Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief

by Judy J. Johnson

"Like pesky wasps buzzing circles around us, people who act as if they were the sole expert on a subject put us on edge. In halls of learning where we least expect to find it, in governments, in religious temples, in businesses, in marriages and families, dogmatism is the arrogant voice of certainty that closes the mind, damages relationships, and threatens

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"Like pesky wasps buzzing circles around us, people who act as if they were the sole expert on a subject put us on edge. In halls of learning where we least expect to find it, in governments, in religious temples, in businesses, in marriages and families, dogmatism is the arrogant voice of certainty that closes the mind, damages relationships, and threatens peaceful coexistence on this planet." —From chapter 1

In this incisive analysis of an increasingly pervasive problem, clinical psychologist Dr. Judy J. Johnson presents a landmark theory that probes the psychological channels of dogmatism. While other books describe the effects of specific types of ideological extremism, a wide-angle theory of dogmatism—in all its manifestations—has been lacking until now.
Drawing from traditional and contemporary personality theories, biopsychology, social learning theory, Buddhism, and evolutionary psychology, Johnson explores major influences that shape the personality trait of dogmatism. She uses lively case studies to illustrate twelve characteristics of dogmatism, and suggests strategies for minimizing its harmful effects in our personal lives as well as our educational, political, and other social institutions.
Written in a clear, engaging style that is professional in tone yet accessible to a wide audience, Johnson’s insightful work will enlighten readers on one of the most important issues of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A powerful and fascinating work that reads like a book for a general audience, but maintains all the rigor of a serious scientific publication… I urge any reader wishing to understand why so many people (many of whom you’ve met, or are perhaps related to) insist on replacing clear thinking with dogmatism. Ms. Johnson’s book is a major achievement."
—Steven Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of City College, City University of New York and author of Fads and Fallacies in The Social Sciences

"Dr. Johnson ably confronts one of the most pressing dangers of our time, dogmatic thinking in all its forms. This important and timely examination of its roots, the processes involved, and possible societal remedies will be interest to all who value reason, and should be required reading for anyone dealing with the many enemies of reason on society's behalf."
—Professor James Alcock, PhD, Department of Psychology, Glendon College,
York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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Prometheus Books
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The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief

Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

Judy J. Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-657-0


Historical Background

Changing your mind is the only sure proof that you've got one.

Like pesky wasps buzzing circles around us, people who act as if they are the sole experts on a subject put us on edge. In halls of learning (where we least expect to find it), in governments, in religious temples, in businesses, or in marriages and families, dogmatism is the arrogant voice of certainty that closes one's mind, damages relationships, and threatens peaceful coexistence on this planet.

Why is it that some people obstinately refuse to open their minds to new ideas, even when persuasive, contradictory evidence should give them reason to pause? They simply refuse to see things any other way. Not only do they cling to beliefs with rigid certainty, their lack of interpersonal skills makes them oblivious to the effect their proclamations have on others. From ordinary people to priests, presidents, and professors, dogmatists feel protected by what they believe and fail to see that how they believe limits their opportunities for success and erodes their credibility. Like the bed in their guestroom, their minds are always made up, but seldom used.

But these are only some of the problems created by the need to be absolutely right. Around the dinner table, dogmatism is there to constrain thought. At social gatherings, dogmatism interrupts free-spirited conversation. During office meetings and government sittings, dogmatism derails progress. The dictatorial bark of dogmatism has interrupted peace and progress ever since humans began articulating beliefs about the world and their place in it. 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." In Wole Soyinka's words, extreme dogmatism (or zealotry) is vicious and violent: "I am right; you are dead." Understood from a psychological perspective, individual dogmatism is the practice that assures one: "I am right; therefore safe."

Since ancient times, great thinkers have espoused the philosophical importance of being open-minded and cautioned against the perils of doctrinaire thinking. But little was written about dogmatism as a distinct personality disposition until the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich sought to understand why Germans were drawn to Hitler. Their model of the authoritarian character structure was the academic Cape Canaveral for a group of social scientists in California. These scholars, along with Milton Rokeach and others, wanted to determine what, in the psychology of being human, allowed reasonably civilized, well-educated people to perpetrate the horrors against humanity that plagued the first half of the last century. How could the very societies that sought to ensure the benefits of democratic freedom unleash such atrocities?

Still reeling from the aftermath of two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Theodor Adorno and colleagues (the Berkeley Group, as it came to be known), developed a questionnaire to measure authoritarian personalities and the belief systems that underlie anti-Semitic prejudice, antidemocratic attitudes, and fascist tendencies. Their Fascism Scale (F Scale) was published in their 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality. However, the F Scale failed to consider authoritarianism among the political right, although extreme socialists, communists, and liberals can also be authoritarian. Consequently, research on the F Scale failed to substantiate any underlying theory, and within a couple of decades, many social psychology textbooks paid little attention to authoritarianism as a personality trait.

Despite empirical shortcomings, the Berkeley Group's efforts generated ideas about a highly related but broader personality trait-that of dogmatism. It is worth noting here that psychologists use the term personality trait to refer to aspects of personality that motivate us to think, feel, and act in fairly consistent ways across time and different situations. In that sense, traits allow us to make reasonable predictions about people's behavior, because we observe the same person express his or her unique traits (in this case, dogmatism) in many different situations. Traits are therefore more widespread and enduring than specific habits or behavioral tendencies. We will have more to say about personality traits in chapter 11.

* * *

In an attempt to correct the problems inherent in the F Scale, Milton Rokeach outlined the theory and assessment of dogmatism in his book, The Open and Closed Mind (1960). In that book he presented revised forms and research findings that applied his Dogmatism Scale (known simply as the D Scale) to various groups and settings. This questionnaire was assumed to accurately measure dogmatism independent of ideological content. In other words, believing that authoritarianism and fascism are nested within the broader construct of dogmatism, Rokeach shifted the emphasis from fascist authoritarianism on the political right to dogmatism in general. This redirected focus inspired another flurry of research that lasted approximately twenty- five years. However, as with authoritarianism, interest in dogmatism significantly dwindled. Why?

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, scholars did less research on authoritarianism and dogmatism, perhaps because they optimistically concluded that the triumph of liberal democracy was well within reach. One exception to this was Altemeyer's extensive research into right-wing authoritarianism and, to a lesser extent, dogmatism. Like Rokeach, Altemeyer was dismayed by the twentieth century's legacy of human carnage. People lamented the gross violations of human rights and dignity perpetrated by regimes in Rwanda, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Israel. Then came September 11, 2001, a sobering testament that the "rise of exclusionary ideologies ... the quest for ethnic, linguistic or religious purity, pursued by growing numbers, lies behind much of today's bloodshed. By closing the community to diversity and stripping outsiders of essential rights, these dangerous visions of enforced conformity nourish a climate of often brutal intolerance."

Dogmatism is behind such brutality, and the 9/11 events made us acutely aware of our vulnerability to its force. Dogmatism-not religious fundamentalism, terrorism, or fanaticism in general-is the greatest threat to social, political, and scientific progress.

* * *

At a time when major historical, political, and religious developments threaten global peace, a second generation of theory and research on dogmatism is urgently needed to revive the largely abandoned efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. Recent books have been published that describe various aspects of ideological extremism, but there is still no comprehensive theory of the psychological roots of dogmatism and its corresponding features. The time has come for a second generation to reignite dialogue and research on closed-minded, doctrinaire thinking so that we might understand the psychological origins of the problem. Without that, solutions will be short term, at best.

Rokeach is credited with the first attempt to piece together the complex psychology of dogmatism, but his approach was largely limited to the description and measurement of the trait. He did not elaborate on the causal influences that shape doctrinaire thinking. More recently, scholars have made important contributions to our understanding of terrorism (a unique expression of dogmatism), but no comprehensive theory weaves underlying causes-such as biological predispositions, evolutionary predispositions, early childhood development, parenting, social learning, and cultural institutions-into a tapestry of causation.

Though rarely acknowledged as such, the power of dogmatism incites all forms of ideological extremism, including terrorism, cults, certain types of gang warfare, and extreme fundamentalism, whether political or religious. Fundamentalists are those who are "ready to do battle royal for the Fundamentals ... [yet] in no tradition does one find a complete consensus, even among conservatives, about what the 'fundamentals' of the faith really are." For our purposes, such agreement is secondary. Our primary concern is understanding how people hold and practice the fundamentals of their belief systems so that we can counter the rigid, doctrinaire thinking that does battle in the name of ideology.

To that end, this book provides a model that views dogmatism as an ineffective coping style that compromises one's cognitive, emotional, and social intelligence. While most dogmatic people do not have the power to influence many lives, which makes their dogmatism less visible and tragic, dogmatic authoritarian leaders surely threaten the social order. But first, let us focus our attention on an individual profile of dogmatism. Meet Winnie, who epitomizes the trait's unpleasant nature.


Imagine yourself in a beautiful yard where the warm fragrant air of summer welcomes guests for an evening barbecue. As people mingle, their chatter is light, friendly, and punctuated with laughter. Suddenly, Winnie, an accountant for a local manufacturing firm, pierces the air with her beliefs about a local, protracted strike. With each arrogant proclamation, her fist hammers the table as if to pound truth into people's heads: "Meat packers are typical union guys. They're like little children who run for their Mommy every time something goes wrong. Anyone with half a brain knows you can negotiate with them 'til you're blue in the face, but the only thing they really understand are clear ultimatums. It's time management ordered them back to work, and if they refuse to go, lock them out! Everybody's losing patience-and money! They're lucky union busters didn't put them out on the street long ago."

Mel, a thoughtful man, notices that a couple of people at the table look incredulous. Others let their attention drift. Quietly sipping his beer, Mel contemplates Winnie's haughty assumptions and concludes that engaging her in a give-and-take conversation would be as difficult as deciphering hieroglyphics. He makes three observations about Winnie's personality. First, she is emotionally attached to her viewpoint. Second, she needs to be right about matters over which reasonable folks disagree. And third, she announces her views with brash, absolute certainty.

To everyone's relief, Ted finally gets a word in: "Winnie, it seems to me you're pretty dogmatic about a very complicated issue. In my experience, people who give ultimatums usually get the results they least want. Sure, management could order them back to work, but I don't think that would solve the main problem because ..." Reflective pauses not being one of her strengths, Winnie interrupts and resumes her monologue: "Oh c'mon Ted. You're like all those bleeding-heart liberals who hate management...." Winnie's dismissal of Ted conveys her belief that people who disagree with her mantle of "truth" are not worth listening to; they are, she feels, probably stupid, ignorant, or in need of therapy. A few moments later, Ted and Mel saunter over to the beer cooler. Mel ponders Ted's exchange with Winnie. "Dogmatic ... hmm. Good word, Ted. I'd have called her pigheaded-hog-tied to her ideas."

Why does Winnie tenaciously cling to her beliefs like a dog to a bone-a chiseled, meatless bone? She holds court, she obstinately closes her mind to alternative views, she is condescending toward those who disagree with her, and she is seemingly unaware of or unconcerned about how her communication style affects others. What confluence of past experiences shaped her narrow-minded thinking and arrogant attitude? Have you ever met anyone like Winnie?

Those of us who have dealt with the Winnies of this world soon realize that efforts to expand their views or derail their pet topics are generally futile. To question the reasoning behind their beliefs only turns up the volume of their defensiveness. Since Dogmatism 101 is not part of our formal education, our tendency is to simply avoid them if possible-an option less available to people who regularly contend with dogmatic co-workers or relatives.

Worse yet, when people like Winnie get promoted to positions of authority, they stomp around in our institutions of education, religion, politics, justice, the media, and international affairs, leaving Bigfoot imprints of dogmatism. In extreme cases, their thinking so narrows ethical reason and rational thought that they end up taking naive followers on unplanned trips to perilous destinations. These are the dogmatic authoritarian aggressors-the real brutes of dogmatism who have inflicted untold misery on countless innocent people for too many centuries across too many continents.

As the American abolitionist Wendell Phillips advised in 1852, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." The vigilance I have in mind puts dogmatism under the microscope of intense psychological scrutiny. In so doing, we will better understand its causes and effects, and we might then lessen its pernicious influence on social, political, educational, and economic decisions. But before we consider dogmatism from a psychological perspective, we will examine the historical roots that helped generate the model developed here.


Throughout history, believers of various ideologies have clamored to dominate religious and political movements. In this regard, dogmatic beliefs that justify power and dominion over others know no boundaries. Psychologically, belief systems consist of perceptions, cognitions, and emotions that the brain considers to be accurate if not true. While perceptions are interpretations we make about the world based on our sensory systems, cognitions refer to abstract mental processes that continually organize and process these perceptions in unique, meaningful ways. Thus, the terms cognitive and cognition refer to our brain's abstract organization and interpretation of sensory experiences-what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

Dogmatism presumably emerged with the development of language, through which people began crafting myths and folklore about their experiences, abilities, identities, social roles, and various cultural values. When strong emotions became attached to tales and myths, belief systems ensued, some of which were consolidated in dogma that later became institutionalized. Such dogma was stamped with official authority that had the potential for the rigid trappings of dogmatism. But the first definition of dogma is relatively neutral. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dogma as:

1. that which is held as an opinion; a belief, principle tenet; esp. a tenet or doctrine laid down by a particular church, sect, or school of thought; sometimes, [my emphasis], depreciatingly, an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion. 2. The body of opinion formulated or authoritatively stated; systematized belief; tenets or principles collectively; doctrinal system.

Thus, dogma need not always enact the practice of dogmatism; it may merely reflect the content of institutionalized belief systems that may or may not be practiced dogmatically. According to Webster's to be dogmatic is to be "positive; magisterial; asserting or disposed to assert with authority or with overbearing and arrogance; applied to persons; as a dogmatic schoolman or philosopher." Tenets differ in that they do not carry such stamps of authority. Webster's again notes: "A tenet rests on its own intrinsic merits or demerits; a dogma rests on authority regarded as competent to decide and determine."

* * *

Conflicts about various belief systems that were formerly settled among families, small bands, tribes, and larger groups (known as chiefdoms) later became settled by the resolute decisions of appointed rulers who had a monopoly on information, which allowed them to exercise arbitrary power. Such muscular control meant they could apply force to indoctrinate people with "official religious and patriotic fervor [and] make their troops willing to fight suicidally." Ruling elites converted supernatural beliefs into religious dogma that institutionalized and justified the chief's authority. Moreover, shared ideology expanded the bonds of kinship that held groups together and motivated people to cooperate, thus enabling large groups of strangers to live together in peace. To further consolidate and legitimize their power, rulers built temples and monuments as visible reminders of their supremacy. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution, European empires used state religions to give kings, queens, and monarchs divine status that legitimized war and the colonization of the Western world.


Excerpted from WHAT'S SO WRONG WITH BEING ABSOLUTELY RIGHT by JUDY J. JOHNSON Copyright © 2009 by Judy J. Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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