Cognitive Science

New psychology study provides insight into fundamental cognitive processes linked to dogmatism

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Dogmatic individuals tend to form less accurate judgements thanks to a generic resistance to seeking out additional information, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The findings shed new light on the cognitive underpinnings of dogmatic worldviews.

“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,” explained study author Lion Schulz, a doctoral researcher in the Department of Computational Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

“In turn, if we don’t check on quick and uncertain judgements, this can leave us quite vulnerable to misinformation. Understanding the mechanism behind such decisions and how different people approach them is therefore important when we try to understand the current societal climate.”

“We specifically focused on dogmatism. Firstly, it’s an important driver of polarization. Secondly, 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.”

In the study, which included 734 U.S. adults, participants saw two boxes with flickering dots and had to decide which box contained more of the dots. After the participants had made an initial choice and indicated their confidence in their decision, the researchers gave them the chance to view another, clearer version of the boxes to improve the accuracy of their initial judgment. They then made a final decision.

“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,” said co-author Max Rollwage.

The participants then completed a battery of questionnaires that assessed general belief rigidity and dogmatism, political orientation, right- and left-wing authoritarianism, and intolerance to opposing political attitudes.

Schulz and his colleagues found that dogmatic individuals were less likely to take the opportunity to to view another, clearer version of the boxes and, in consequence, tended to form less accurate judgments. The differences between more and less dogmatic participants were especially large when participants had little confidence in a decision.

“Our study shows that dogmatic people seek less information than their peers, even when they are uncertain. As a result, they end up making less accurate judgements,” Schulz told PsyPost.

“A striking aspect of our work is that we find this link between lowered information seeking and dogmatism in such a simple task borrowed from cognitive neuroscience. The fact that that this task has nothing to do with politics shows that real-world dogmatism doesn’t just come down to specific opinions or group membership. Rather, it appears that there are more fundamental cognitive processes at play.”

However, “the differences between more and less dogmatic people were subtle, and we don’t know yet how they would manifest when considering real-world information such as news about political parties,” Schulz added.

“It would also be interesting to consider whether we can use our findings to design interventions that promote open-mindedness. My colleagues have interesting work showing that you can in fact improve people’s metacognition — the way people form and use their confidence. Using approaches like this might also increase more dogmatic people’s willingness to seek out information when they have low confidence.”

The findings have some other real-world implications as well.

“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 explained.

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

“For example, one insight that we might draw from our study is that the quality of the first news story we see about a topic is crucial – if it’s inaccurate and we fail to check then we can quickly form skewed opinions. In order to avoid that, it’s important to ensure the veracity of these initial exposures, something that might not be the priority in the fast-paced and attention-focused world we live in,” Schulz said.

The study, “Dogmatism manifests in lowered information search under uncertainty“, was authored by Lion Schulz, Max Rollwage, Raymond J. Dolan, and Stephen M. Fleming.

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)