Reengineering Human Nature: Dogmatism

The Problem: Human beings are stubborn creatures, set in our ways, resistant to changing our minds once we’ve made a decision. Religious groups publish creeds which they believe must be taken on faith and should be maintained against all contrary evidence – and they consider the ability to do that a virtue, rather than a character flaw. Even when dramatic disconfirmation comes, such as the apocalypse failing to occur on a predicted date, a common response is for believers to become even more committed.

Human dogmatism rears its head in politics as well as in religion. The stubborn persistence of conspiracy theories, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and common sense, is an example. Pseudoscientific beliefs such as the fear that vaccination causes autism persist even after failing the tests their own advocates set for them, and as with religion, outside criticism only tends to make the true believers cling to their beliefs all the more tightly. Although some people do change their minds about beliefs that are important to them, the striking thing about these conversions is how rare and noteworthy they are. The obstinate nature of dogmatism slows human progress, fostering division and sectarianism and causing people to hold to wrong ideas long after they’ve been more than adequately disproven.

The Solution: To illustrate how emotion dominates reason in human behavior, Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis compares the mind to a person riding an elephant. The rider can usually steer, unless the elephant decides it wants to go somewhere else. In a similar way, the brain’s emotional centers have deep projections into the rational parts of our brains, but not vice versa. A person who’s feeling angry or frightened can easily be induced to make bad decisions, and it’s almost impossible to persuade someone to give up a pleasurable habit that’s bad for them, even when they know it’s harmful. And the sense of belonging to a group, of being on the side of good or having access to secret truths of which the rest of the world is ignorant, is a feeling that has powerful emotional rewards.

Because the stubbornly emotional, nonrational parts of the mind can override the rational parts, human beings easily fall into the trap of dogmatism. But there’s no reason the mind has to be designed this way. Why not shape our brains so that the rational centers instead override the emotional ones, or at least so that the two of them are equally powerful? That way, we’d be more likely to consider the evidence supporting a proposition and not just whether it feels good to believe it. The emotional centers would still operate just as before – we wouldn’t be Vulcans, we’d still be human beings who feel happiness, love, anger and fear – but it would be far easier to overrule irrational emotion with objective reason when the situation calls for it.

The Real Explanation: The tendency toward dogmatism is a legacy of our having evolved in a complex and dangerous world. Humans and our direct ancestors lived on the edge of survival, at the mercy of the weather and climate and constantly threatened by natural disasters, by predators, and not least, by invasion and warfare with other humans. Under these circumstances, when a tribe found one way of life that enabled them to survive – fishing, or herding, or hunting and gathering – they’d have a strong incentive not to change it unless forced to by circumstance. It’s much safer to go with what you know will work, rather than risk death by striking out into the wilderness and trying something brand-new. And evolution has imprinted that lesson on our brains, steering human behavior with brain areas that reward us with positive feedback when we find something that works, and warn us away from the unknown with negative emotions like fear.

Our ability to reason is a recent adaptation, compared to the older and more primitive emotional drives that shape our behavior. In evolutionary terms, it’s like a new branch freshly grafted onto a large, ancient tree. It’s little surprise that it hasn’t gained the ability to override those older impulses – but an intelligent creator, foreseeing the greater benefits we stand to gain through reason, most certainly could have designed it that way.

Other posts in this series:

If John Galt Invented the Internet
The Post-Work Society
If Ayn Rand Wrote Shakespeare
SF/F Saturday: The Culture
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.