One Way Dogma Can Perpetuate Rigid Opinions

Dogmatic people may be less likely to resolve uncertainty by seeking new facts.

Posted Nov 22, 2020

George Becker/Pexels
Source: George Becker/Pexels

"When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow." ―Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin (1944-1947)

New research into the "cognitive mechanism that may contribute to the formation of dogmatic worldviews" suggests that those prone to dogmatism are less likely to investigate potential uncertainty by going on fact-finding missions. This peer-reviewed, observational study (Schulz et al., 2020) of over 700 people by researchers from University College London and the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics was published on Nov. 19 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"When knowledge is scarce, it is adaptive to seek further information to resolve uncertainty and obtain a more accurate worldview," the authors explain. "Here, we investigate whether predispositions for uncertainty-guided information-seeking relate to individual differences in dogmatism, a phenomenon linked to entrenched beliefs in political, scientific, and religious discourse."

Lion Schulz and colleagues' research identifies a link between higher levels of dogmatism and a decreased likelihood to seek more information when faced with uncertainty. According to the authors, these findings "point to differences in thinking patterns that lead people to hold rigid opinions."

The sample of 734 adults residing in the United States that was used for this two-pronged study was recruited via the online platform Amazon Mechanical Turk and represented a wide range of backgrounds and political beliefs.

In the first phase of this research, participants responded to questionnaires that measured "general belief rigidity and dogmatism, political beliefs, authoritarianism, and intolerance to opposing political attitudes." Schulz et al. were able to measure dogmatism based on a detailed factor analysis they applied to the questionnaire battery. "The breadth of the battery allowed us to quantitatively distinguish dogmatism from other, possibly related, constructs and study their interplay," the authors note.

After ascertaining people's varying degrees of dogmatism, the researchers had participants perform decision-making tasks while playing an online game that gave each player the option to seek more information if they felt uncertain about their final decision. As Schulz explained in a recent news release: "This [online game] mirrors many real-life situations—for example, when we hear a rumor but aren't sure if it's true. Do we share it, or do we check a credible source beforehand?"

Notably, Schulz et al. found that when dogmatic individuals were faced with uncertainty while playing the online game, they were less likely to seek out more evidence-based information before making a decision. "Overall, our findings highlight that, in the absence of motivational factors, more dogmatic participants seek out less information before committing to a decision—even when this information would be helpful," the authors stated.

"It is striking that we could detect links between dogmatism about issues such as politics and information-seeking in a simple online game," senior author Steve Fleming said in the news release. "This tells us that real-world dogmatism isn't just a feature of specific groups or opinions but may be associated with more fundamental cognitive processes."

Because highly dogmatic people were less prone to seek more information when they were uncertain, in general, they tended to make less accurate overall judgments while playing the online game.

It's important to note that the relationship between dogmatism and information-seeking behavior that was observed during this online game could easily play out differently in real-world situations. "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," Schulz warned.

The research also sheds light on the possibility that simply having access to information that could debunk a baseless conspiracy theory doesn't mean that highly dogmatic people will be inclined to seek out that information. "This is particularly relevant today," Schulz noted. "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."

Schulz and colleagues are currently conducting experiments designed to identify the underlying cognitive processes that make some people more likely to search for additional information when faced with uncertainty.

References

Lion Schulz, Max Rollwage, Raymond J. Dolan, and Stephen M. Fleming. "Dogmatism Manifests in Lowered Information Search Under Uncertainty." PNAS (First published: November 19, 2020) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2009641117