Are you sick and tired of politicians and their antics throughout the United States? Regardless of your political orientation, this is likely the case. Over the last 20 years there has been a rising tide of bitter partisanship, leaving a large contingent of US Citizens feeling frustrated and disenfranchised. Meanwhile both parties point their fingers at their adversaries proclaiming that it is the ideological extremism of the other party causing the divide. The liberals are accused of promoting socialistic policies while the conservatives are accused of acquiescing to religious and corporate interests.
Underlying this partisanship are two driving concepts, dogmatism and belief superiority. Dogmatism is generally conceptualized as ideological rigidity. This is characterized by the holding of beliefs as “incontrovertible and sacrosanct,”1 with a conviction that the beliefs cannot, and should not, be abandoned. Belief superiority, on the other hand, is self defining but it lacks the rigidity factor. One can hold a belief as being superior to the beliefs of others, but be willing to modify that belief based on evidence or changing societal values.
Some contend that both liberals and conservatives at the polar ends of the political spectrum are ideological extremists and thus are more likely to be dogmatic. This position is known as the Ideological-Extremist Hypothesis. Another perspective, held by many, is the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis, that contends that conservatives tend to score higher than liberals on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and closed-mindedness. Naturally, the issue is more nuanced than this. These issues have been studied and published in a paper by Toner, Leary, Asher, and Jongman-Sereno (2013) titled Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Toner et al., (2013) contend that:
“Not only do individuals – liberals and conservative alike – vary in the issues about which they feel superior, but also evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives may be dogmatic about different issues. For example compared to conservatives, liberals are more dogmatic about global warming, equally dogmatic about civil unions, and less dogmatic about affirmative action.” 1
Measuring both belief superiority and dogmatism, Toner and her colleagues attempted to assess the veracity of both the Rigidity of the Right and the Ideological Extremism Hypotheses. They did this through an online questionnaire service whereby they collected data on 527 subjects (55% male, 49% with some college, ages 18-67 years with a mean age of 30.7). Three questionnaires were completed by each participant including: 1) an issues oriented set of questions quantifying attitudes on nine contentious political topics – thereby determining their political sensibilities on a conservative-liberal spectrum; 2) a superiority of belief measure assessing the degree of certainty of correctness on each issue, and 3) a measure of dogmatic thinking. Co-author Mark Leary noted that they: “… examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.2
Consistent with previous research findings, those espousing more conservative attitudes scored significantly higher on the dogmatism scale. Thus the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis was supported while the Ideological Extremism hypothesis was unsubstantiated. In other words, extreme conservatives scored much higher on the dogmatism scale than did extreme liberals. With regard to belief superiority, both conservatives and liberals demonstrated this attribute, but on different topics (see Figure 2 below from Toner, et al., 2013). Specifically, people who endorsed conservative attitudes expressed greater belief superiority than did liberals when asked about voter identification laws, affirmative action, and taxes. Liberals demonstrated greater belief superiority on the issues pertaining to the role in government in helping the less fortunate, the use of torture on terrorists, and the basing of laws on religious teachings. The more “extreme” one’s attitudes were, the greater their belief superiority tended to be.
As this study and a number of previous studies have provided evidence for, dogmatism tends to be associated with those at the conservative end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, belief superiority is more specific to the issues and is evident at both ends of the spectrum. Toner et al., (2013) note:
“… belief superiority does not include the unchanging, inflexible element implied by dogmatism. Thus, people who endorse extremely liberal views may feel as equally superior in their beliefs as those endorsing extremely conservative views, but they might be more likely to adjust their views over time with changes in evidence, social norms, or other people’s influence.”1
History is filled with travesties perpetrated by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum promoting egalitarian (liberal), individualistic (conservative), and/or religious agendas. As Toner et al., (2013) suggest, strong beliefs based in evidence may be reasonable and justified. It is dogmatism, regardless of what belief system that it emanates from, which constitutes danger. Dangerous yes, but more relevant today is the reality that such bombast results in gridlock. These mindsets help explain the current US governmental stalemate as Toner noted in an interview for Duke Today: “These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can’t reach across the aisle. As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right.”2
Although certainty and confidence are attractive in leaders, it is exactly these very attributes that render politicians ineffective. Life and society are complicated. There are no easy solutions. What I took away from this study is that we need collaboration among diverse and intelligent thinkers who are unencumbered by dogmatism and extremist ideology. We, as a people, must stop feeding into the vitriolic nature of politics and look for leaders who are more willing to work together to solve complex problems. We must stop feeding the monster, before it eats us up. One important way to end this is to stop attending to extremist political pundits who stir up hatred and polarize politics. We all know who these pundits are. The reality is that media driven hatred and fear mongering drives these phenomena and it is commercial Television and Radio that gives these pundits a platform. Perhaps it is time to hit their corporate sponsors as they are complicit in spoiling the well.
1. Toner, K., Leary, M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013). Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848
2. Duke Today. (2013). Belief Superiority is Bipartisan