Dogmatic beliefs appear linked to deeper cognitive processes: study

January 7, 2021
Dogmatic thinkers tend to seek out those who agree with them. (Unsplash/NeONBRAND)

Dogmatic thinkers tend to seek out those who agree with them. (Unsplash/NeONBRAND)

People whose political, scientific or religious principles are dogmatic remain reluctant to seek out new information that could refine their beliefs even though the internet now makes it easily available, a dynamic that may be driven by fundamental cognitive processes, according to recent research involving American adults.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, a team of researchers investigated how dogmatic Americans decide if they have enough evidence about a topic or whether they should seek out further information. Psychologists refer to dogmatic beliefs as those that are held unquestionably and with undefended certainty, usually without the consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.

The study focused on dogmatism because it is an important driver of polarization, Lion Schulz, a PhD student in the Department of Computational Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany and a co-author of the paper, told The Academic Times

Given that the age of the internet has provided people with more information access and educational resources than ever before, the authors sought to understand how the current informational landscape has shaped the world.

“While the internet has heralded access to a plethora of well-vetted information, fake news remains rife,” the authors said in the paper. 

Schulz noted the importance of media coverage and that the quality of the first news story people see about a topic is crucial. Inaccurate reporting can form skewed opinions, and readers may not prioritize digging deeper into each story due to the fast-paced nature of the news cycle.

The research team, whose primary background is in cognitive neuroscience, used this study to examine how fundamental thought processes are tied to real-world behavior. Schulz specializes in information search and metacognition, or the awareness of one’s own thinking, and how they relate to beliefs and behavior.

The researchers tested two samples of about 370 U.S. adults each. The participants filled out multiple questionnaires that measured dogmatism, political orientation and the social and economic conservatism scale, a 12-item scale that measures political ideology. They also performed a visual information-seeking task that measured their confidence, in which they received a monetary reward for correctly judging which of two flickering boxes contained the greater number of dots. Following their choice, the participants were asked if they wanted to see additional evidence to improve their decision accuracy.

Schulz said the findings demonstrate that real-world dogmatism doesn’t just come down to specific opinions or group membership, but rather that there appear to be more fundamental cognitive processes at play.

“It doesn’t necessarily take motivational processes to refuse information, for example, when one might not want to hear about climate change because it might endanger one’s job. Rather, simple cognitive and non-emotional processes that transcend our opinions might also be involved,” Schulz said.

Dogmatism may predispose people to get stuck in echo chambers because they are seeking out less information in general, according to Schulz, and that more dogmatic people tend to hold more extreme political beliefs as a result. 

“Our results demonstrate that dogmatic people seek less information than their peers, even when they are uncertain. This in turn leads them to make less accurate judgments overall,” Schulz said. “A striking aspect of this work is that we find this link between lowered information seeking and dogmatism in such a simple task borrowed from cognitive neuroscience.”

The study found that the resistance to find new information in dogmatic individuals was most pronounced when the initial decisions were uncertain. And uncertain decisions are also less likely to be correct, Schulz said, so dogmatic individuals were less likely to seek out contradictory evidence when they were wrong, which is a form of confirmation bias.

“We believe that our line of research should not be used to condemn a particular mindset or advocate for another. Rather, we hope that it might help us to understand the cognitive factors that contribute to specific societal attitudes and in extension society as a whole,” Schulz said.

For future research on the topic, Schulz also suggested designing interventions that promote open-mindedness. Other research has proven that metacognition, which also relates to the way people form and use their confidence, can be changed. And Schulz said that using approaches like this could increase the willingness of dogmatic individuals to seek out information when they have low confidence.

“Our study can serve as somewhat of a cautionary tale, whether we think of ourselves as dogmatic or not — when uncertain, it might be wise to check the information again,” Schulz said.

The study, “Dogmatism manifests in lowered information search under uncertainty,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal on Nov. 19. Stephen M. Fleming of the Max Planck UCL Centre was the lead author. Lion Schulz of the Max Planck Institute and Max Rollwage and Raymond J. Dolan of the Max Planck UCL Centre served as co-authors. 

This story has been updated to correct the institutional affiliations of the authors. 

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