The Causes of Dogmatism

Sociological, Psychological, Bioevolutionary and Physiological Foundations


In part I of this series, following the work of Judy J. Johnson in What’s so Wrong with Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief, we identified dogmatism — not as the content of a particular ideology but as a process of thinking, emoting and acting. We distinguished dogmatism from fanaticism and clarified the differences between dogmatism and open-minded thinking. I spent most the article defining 14 characteristics of dogmatism. Five are cognitive, four are emotional and five are behavioral.

In this article, Part II, we examine the many causes of dogmatism — moving from sociological, to social psychological, to psychological to bioevolutionary and physiological. I will include my own research in sociology and cognitive psychology to support Judy’s book. The image above illustrates that despite the dogmatists’ aggression and scapegoating of groups lower them themselves in the hierarchy, they are slavishly obedient to those above them.

Socio-economic Causes: Contracting Economy, Class and Race Dynamics

Sociologists have found that race relations get better or worse depending on whether the capitalist economy is contracting or expanding. In an economy where jobs are relatively plentiful there are less incidents of racial violence. But when the economy is contracting race relations get worse. Why is this?

Whether or not capitalists intend to, they benefit from racism between workers on their job site. Capitalists have always paid white workers more money and given them privileges relative to Blacks. What is the likely fallout? There will be racial animosity. Black workers will be angry that white workers are being paid more money to do the same work. White workers will look for and find ideologies like racism and fascism to help justify these inequalities. Both white and Black workers face the same problem. They work very hard under difficult circumstances and are not paid very much. They have two choices. The first is either they see their problem as part of a questionable capitalist system or not. If they see that it is, they will unite on the basis of occupying the same class. The other choice is for white workers to think they have more in common with white employers on the basis of race and ignore their class commonalties with Black workers. If they do that, they are likely to be susceptible to many of the fourteen characteristics of dogmatism.

Small business owners are also caught in a bind. In a contracting economy, compared to corporate capitalists, the small business owner is likely to go under. They are also faced with two ways to make sense of things. One is to choose a structural response which is to demand that the state give them more protection so that they are not gobbled up by corporate capitalists. But the other is to blame their workers for wanting more money. In order to make up some of their losses they pays workers less than corporate capitalists pay. In order to keep workers from unionizing they will pay white workers more than Blacks and attack Black workers for being too greedy. After all, they rationalize, the Blacks should be grateful the owner has even hired them. If the small business owners make the second choice, they too are likely to have many of the fourteen characteristics of dogmatism. In fact, in the last two “elections” in Mordor, labor historian Kim Moody has shown that small business owners have the highest percentage of voting for fascists.

This economic, class and race analysis will help explain three of the behavioral characteristics named in Part I. This includes preoccupation with power and status; glorification of in-group and vilification of out-group; and dogmatic authoritarian aggression towards minorities.

Psychology of Dogmatism in Early Childhood Development

Johnson points out that when parents are uninformed, indifferent or malevolent and fail to satisfy their baby’s emotional and social needs it is hard for the child to develop a sense of resilience.

Prolonged separation from the primary caregiver causes emotional, cognitive and social disorganization. When repeated attempts fail to make a connection to the caregiver, they may react with clinginess or aggressive confrontation. These children learn to mistrust themselves and others because they cannot get past the burdensome thoughts and anxiety that erode their self-confidence. (369)

One mother might assume that more often than not, her baby’s crying is manipulative or attention-seeking. Still others respond with alternating periods of tender loving care, normal distancing, smothering enmeshment, negligence and even abuse. Adopting beliefs and holding them with adamant certainly will compensate for childhood insecurities Insecure attachment and the ensuring anxiety may also be converted to dogmatic authoritarian aggression. (370-371)

Young children with a history of neglect or abuse experience chronic hyperarousal that elevates their hormone level and causes chaotic biochemical alternations… This aggregate of misfortune also impairs the development of empathy. (363)

Johnson points out that in Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages of development, these types of problems would correspond to Erikson’s first stage of trust vs mistrust. But I see connections between dogmatism and Erikson’s second and third stages as well. Erikson’s second stage is autonomy vs shame and doubt. Autonomy means the child is practicing saying “no” (also known as the terrible twos). The third stage is initiative vs guilt. Initiative means saying “yes” to activities the child chooses. I see no reason why the budding young dogmatist would also be carrying both shame and doubt along with guilt as developmental baggage. This is because the authoritarian parents would not easily tolerate a child who defies them (saying no) or chooses activities that are not on the parents’ menu (initiative).

Dogmatism and Personality

Trait theory

According to trait theory one of the five major traits of a healthy personality is openness to experience. This consists of one’s desire to seek and appreciate new experiences for their own sake. Openness also reflects tolerance for and exploration of the unfamiliar. Openness means a person is curious, imaginative, insightful and has wide interests, vivid fantasies and unconventional attitudes. Low scores in openness, indicate closemindedness including an unadventurous, unanalytical mind and narrowness of interest. This person is drawn to the familiar, practical and concrete. There is a lack of interest in experience for its own sake. The open and closed personalities of trait theory closely resemble the dogmatic vs open personalities we discussed in Part I of this article. The second global trait is neuroticism. This includes emotional instability and anxiety. It means constant worry with inadequate coping mechanisms. Among the 14 traits of dogmatism this corresponds to characteristic six.


According to Johnson, within the first two years of life, infants experience inexorable feelings of inferiority due to physical smallness, intellectual immaturity, poor eyesight or hearing and health problems. Adler says that to compensate for the inevitable inadequacies, they began striving for superiority which Freudians might call a reaction formation. Children raised in harsh, punitive or negligent environments create fictions that steer them away from social interest and towards mistaken lifestyles. The three mistaken lifestyles for Adler are:

  • The ruling type who seeks to dominate others
  • The getting type (goal is passive dependence)
  • The avoiding type who sidesteps issues

From an Adlerian perspective, dogmatic characteristics of authoritarian aggression and arrogant, dismissive communication are tendencies that evolved from the early childhood goals of the ruling type.

If the insecure child cannot gain his caretaker’s love, safety and respect, the Divine Father would surely deliver the goods. These individuals do not go to church to maximize their social interest, but rather to both maximize their psychological survival and to minimize their self-doubt. Blind obedience to an authoritarian God is a tradeoff for a secure attachment that was not experienced as a child.

Karen Horney

According to Judy Johnson, feminist psychologist Karen Horney believed that basic anxiety that is prolonged beyond the normal range of anxiety has its origins in faulty parenting which includes parents who are dominating, intimidating, irritable, over-exacting and hypercritical. The second cause of anxiety is the unhealthy hyper-competitiveness of capitalist society.

For Horney, basic anxiety would be overcome by moving with people within a more cooperative society. If a person cannot live under those conditions there are three neurotic orientations: moving towards people, moving against people and moving away from people. Johnson writes that Horney’s moving against is the most relevant to dogmatism. The neurotic becomes driven by a search for glory at the expense of a scapegoated group. The need to proselytize or dominate conversations are typical of moving against strategies.

But I see that Horney’s neurotic trend of moving towards people can apply to the dogmatist’s in-group and their authority figures. They move with obsequious conformity and obedience. They seek out authorities who seem superior and therefore capable of taking care of them

Cognitive psychology: layers of cognition

In this section I will be bringing in three layers of cognitive identity – cognitive distorted interpretations, pessimistic explanatory styles and irrational assumptions. While Judy Johnson does not use these layers in her search for the dogmatic personality, some of these characteristics can easily be connected.

Cognitive distortions

According to Aaron Beck the eight cognitive distortions are:

  1. Black and white thinking, which is also connected to catastrophizing. This was among the 14 dogmatic characteristics.
  2. Overgeneralization can easily be seen at work in relation to scapegoated groups.
  3. Over-personalization is at work when we talk about sensitivity to perceived insults.
  4. Magnification is operating in relation to perceived insults while minimalizing would be at play in evaluating the achievements of minorities.
  5. Distorted evidence – believing things without looking for good evidence is very common among dogmatists.
  6. Selective choice of evidence is occurring when dogmatists stereotype groups without looking for exceptions to the rules.
  7. Mind reading – misreading body cues, not asking people what they think because dogmatists lack interpersonal skill in conversations.
  8. Feelings of confusion with behavior trapped in feelings and not being able to recognize that actions are different from feelings.

Pessimistic explanatory styles

According to Martin Seligman, whenever a new dramatic situation appears there are three questions that go through people’s minds:

  1. How long will this last?
  2. How will this affect the rest of my life?
  3. Who is responsible?

Let’s say there is an economic crisis of some kind. The most pessimistic answers to these questions are that it will last forever, the rest of my life will be swept into the undertow, and I am responsible for the problem. The optimistic response to an economic crisis is it will be short-term (it will give me a chance to go to school or catch up in other areas of my life), it will not affect the rest of my life (I have solid support from my partner and family of origin) and I am not responsible (capitalism is in crisis all over the Western world). The dogmatist will have a pessimistic explanatory style. This matches one of the dogmatic characteristics, “excessive pessimism”.

Irrational assumptions

Albert Ellis came up with these many years ago. Most of them can be seen in dogmatists:

  • It is a dire necessity for me to be loved or approved of by everyone for everything.
  • Some people are evil and they know the things they do are wrong, but they do them anyway.
  • It is terrible, horrible and catastrophic when things don’t go my way.
  • Much human unhappiness is externally caused and is forced on one by outside people and events.
  • If something is dangerous or fearsome, worrying about it helps the situation.
  • It is easier to avoid than to face life’s difficulties and self-responsibilities because it takes less energy.
  • I need to depend on someone or something greater than myself on whom I can rely.
  • I should be thoroughly competent, adequate, intelligent and successful always.
  • Because something once strongly affected my life, it should affect it indefinitely.
  • What other people do is vitally important to my existence and I should make great efforts to change them in the direction I wish.
  • Human happiness can be achieved by waiting for the right person or situation to come along.
  • I have virtually no control over my emotions and I can’t help feeling certain things.

Clearly for the dogmatist, their early childhood background of neglect, inconsistency, and violence makes them desperate for approval, regardless of what they say. The second irrational assumption about people being evil fits easily with the dogmatist’s perception of those they are scapegoating. The lack of tolerance of ambiguity makes all disappointments catastrophic and earth-shaking for the dogmatist. Because the dogmatist lacks the ability to self-reflect, they cannot see their own part in creating a negative situation. Everything is mechanically and externally driven.

Thinking that I need to depend on someone greater than myself fits right in with an authoritarian, fundamentalist religion or an authoritarian political (especially fascist) leader. Lastly, thinking I have no control over my emotions and I can’t help feeling this way. Dogmatists have no idea of how cognitive interpretations, explanatory styles and assumptions have anything to do with their emotions. Emotions appear to be uncaused eruptions over which the person has no control.

Darwinian Evolutionary Biology

Judy Johnson names the following seven traits that have enabled primates to adapt and procreate during Paleolithic evolution and beyond:

  • Activity – total energy output that is expressed in vigorous, energized behavior
  • Fearfulness, cowering escape and wariness which activate physiological arousal of the autonomic nervous system
  • Impulsivity – acting on the spur of the moment without pause, planning or reflection
  • Sociability – preferring to be with others rather than live a solitary existence
  • Nurturance – helping others, which includes altruism
  • Aggressiveness – verbally and physically threatening or attacking others
  • Dominance – seeking and maintaining superior status over others


The pushiness of dogmatism and the insistence on aggressive conversion has its roots in dominance-seeking or aggressive tendencies that are part of the package of our evolutionary inheritance. I am not suggesting that dominance and aggressiveness are the only or leading characteristic of human beings. As you can see from the list, there are also traits for sociability and nurturance which counter dominance and aggressiveness. These primitive, old-brain adaptations are still present in our modern institutions which are the products for dominance, aggressiveness, sociability and nurturance. To include evolutionary Darwinian biology as part of a theory of dogmatism, we must address the survival value of rigidly clinging to beliefs and defending them with arrogant certainty. One answer to this is evolutionary. since the rate at which nature and society change is slow from the period of 100,000 years to 10,000 years (9/10 of our existence), it would pay not to change our beliefs too quickly.


A biological predisposition for anxiety is part of shaping dogmatism. While a sudden intense anxiety that might be adaptive thousands of years ago, today it may be a maladaptive tagalong that continues to fire. Although the characteristics of dogmatism are not just biologically based, higher than average levels of anxiety do have a biological basis. Physiologically, Johnson says that excessive anxiety is linked to defects in the GABA system (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Research reveals strong evidence for the genetic heritability of anxiety. Genes initially create an emotional predisposition for anxiety that structurally facilitates a dogmatic style in emotions.

Biological Physiology
Amygdala and extreme stress

The symptoms of PTSD occur in response to events outside the realm of normal human suffering such as natural disasters, combat fatigue and terrorist attacks or torture. While many of us have suffered from serious accident or illness, job loss or death of a loved one, most of us are resilient enough to return to our former selves of personality function. Dogmatists are less likely to do this.

An excitable amygdala is implicated in persistent anxiety and social inhibition. Johnson shows that:

Because molecular structures consolidate early childhood thoughts and emotions in circuits of long-term memory, these circuits continue to influence ongoing experience. In particular, prolonged distress or trauma,seriously impacts neural circuity. (292)

Researchers have found that when the amygdala, a midbrain structure, detects anything that signals danger, it activates an electrochemical fear response. Low-road reactions are instant, reflexive and protective. (296)

Rather than patiently waiting to understand the full context in order to determine how to react, our amygdala signals danger and we reflexively pull back. When at school or playing, if children are repeatedly teased or ridiculed, the felt anxiety may resurface in neutral or friendly social settings, which create overreactions in their interpersonal perceptions and interpretations. These children may become angry and defensive in response to open-ended, harmless questions.

An emotionally activated amygdala releases cortisol, a powerful hormone, the net effect of which is to disrupt hippocampal activity, weakening the ability of the temporal lobe memorial system to form explicit memories. Under prolonged stress cortisol representations of oneself, others and the surrounding world may become distorted. These proteins grow new synaptic connections that further alter brain circulates some of which become static, closed and invested in defensive structures to guard against anticipated assaults.(298)


There is a physiological price to be paid for prolonged anger. Johnson says:

Self-righteous anger is always twinned with physiological arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.  Research on physiological reactions of aggression, especially prolonged hostility, release the chronically elevated stress hormones that not only strain the coronary and gastrointestinal systems, they also impair immunological functioning (218)

 Lack of oxytocin

Children who are repeatedly denied cuddling, attention, playfulness and kindness have serious hormonal consequences:

Abusive or negligent parents limited the child’s ability to regulate the length, intensity or frequency of distressing emotions like anger, terror or shame. This emotional dysregulation is further exacerbated if in infancy, a baby does not experience pleasurable releases of oxytocin and other brain chemical that are secreted during positions of social connection. Known as the hormone of love, oxytocin evokes an inner sense of emotional calm and balance (292)

Without loving, nurturing parents who activate the chemical that helps produce children’s positive self-image, they are less resilient to stress and lose confidence in their ability to control their emotions.  Consequently, they may become clingy and dependent. Without such skills, these children are more likely to conform to group values and succumb to peer pressure even when it goes against their self-interest or morals. They have no awareness that this desperate conformity has anything to do with early emotional deprivation from caregivers.

Lack of dopamine

From research in trait theory, there is a biological basis of the “Openness to Experience” trait. Being open to new ideas and experiences is influenced by individual differences in the dopaminergic system. Since the polar opposite of openness is closedness, the closed-minded manner in which dogmatic people process information may be due in part to some failed mechanism in the transmission of dopamine.


Here is summary of all the factors that produce dogmatic cognition, emotion and behavior.


Some of these are from Judy Johnson, while others are my own.

  • PTSD (wars, rape, physical abuse, torture)
  • Economically contracted society
  • Economic competition between racially mixed working class
  • Economic competition between small business owners and corporate capitalists
  • Political groups with the financial means to ideologically seduce and indoctrinate the disenfranchised and psychologically vulnerable
  • Membership in narrow or closed-minded groups that offer a) the promise of social acceptances; b) individual recognition; c) honor and dignity
  • Joining a group on the basis of their rigid, authoritarian goals
  • Political and economic marginalization of youth
  • Inadequate state funding for educational infrastructure and support programs for cognitive impoverishment during childhood and adolescence


  • Parents who themselves have the characteristics of dogmatism
  • Parental styles of parenting which are anxious-ambivalent as opposed to secure
  • Parental inability to facilitate emotional regulation during infancy and childhood
  • Prolonged exposure to role models who seek revenge for past injustices
  • Early indoctrination of religious beliefs that discourage natural curiosity and open-minded questioning and reasoning throughout childhood and adolescence (like religious fundamentalism)
  • Institutional punishment (at school) for independent thought in childhood and adolescence


  • Closed personality, neuroticism (Big five)
  • Superiority complex, ruling type (Adler)
  • Moving towards, moving against (Horney)
  • Cognitive interpretation distortions, pessimistic explanatory styles, irrational assumptions


  • Innate evolutionary adaptations for dominance and aggressiveness that linger in modern brains


  • Biological predisposition for anxiety
  • Overly active amygdala
  • Lack of oxytocin
  • Lack of dopamine


Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.