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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    Long time reader, infrequent commenter. I agree with the general thrust of your argument, but I’d like to understand if there is actually evidence (there may be, I’ll admit ignorance here) to support this statement:

    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.

    This seems to me to be a “just so” evolutionary argument. Though I agree that it is likely to have happened as you describe, your matter-of-fact “evolution has imprinted” makes it appear that this is settled evolutionary theory, when it seems to me to be incredibly difficult to have teased this kind of higher intelligence out of a fossil record.

  • AnonaMiss

    @Rick: The tendency to remember and imprint behavior that seems to work is well-attested in many species. Think rats that learn to press a certain lever for food, and continue pressing it long after it has ceased producing. I remember reading a similar study, in the wild, with crows and shells with treats under them.

    I guess that doesn’t account for fear of the unknown, but it’s a good example of a behavior preserved for no logical reason, just because it is remembered to have worked in the past. The difference between rats and humans is that a new rat is going to base its beliefs on the lever on its own experiences; while humans have a higher capacity for communication, so this sort of “tradition” can be based not on something that you discovered would work yourself, but on the authority that someone else said it works. This naturally opens itself up to false positives lingering much longer than in rats, as well as to exploitation on the part of the older generation.

    “Yeah, when you eat this? It totally turns into meat going down your throat. Human meat.” “Ewwww!” “It’s not gross. It’s an important part of our religious tradition, so eat up! *snicker*”

    Edit: I guess I left this without a conclusion. I think it’s valid to say that it’s a selected trait based on the fact that “lower” animals do exactly the same thing – it’s something we have in common with every mammal I can think of, as well as many non-mammals. I think I’m still not quite getting my point across, but the ticking comment-edit timer is distracting me.

    ^ purely hypothetical example, not saying that the doctrine of transubstantiation started as a practical joke. I’m only saying that I would totally do that to my little sister.

    @Ebon: Unlike the rest of your articles (that I remember) in this series, dogmatism is a quality that religious believers admire. IIRC, the original premise of your Reengineering Human Nature articles was to show how god, if he existed, could have fixed certain human flaws – and that their existence, combined with the easy evolutionary explanation for them, pointed towards a naturalistic origin of human life. It seems odd to include what your target audience would consider an admirable quality in your list of things-they-hate-that-god-could-have-prevented-but-hey-evolution-explains it.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yes, I was surprised to see dogmatism in this series; most theists I’ve met would consider it better than open-mindedness.

  • Rollingforest

    I think this is an important read for some atheists who say “I can’t believe people are so stupid as to believe in God!” Like the article says, evolution programs species to follow what has worked in the past. Experimenting is rare, even in “higher” species like chimps. Humans, if we are honest, aren’t much better.

    Another important concept is the evolution of the perception of consciousness. When a Stone Age man heard a twig snap behind him, he could assume one of two things: Either it was a potentially dangerous conscious being (like a lion) or that it was just a branch breaking from physical causes (such as snapping in the wind).

    If he assumes that it’s a lion and he is right, then he could have a head start at fighting it off with a spear or running to a more defensive spot. If he is wrong and it is just the wind, then he has only had a little shock and he just needs to calm down.

    But what if he assumes it was just the wind? If he is right, then he just goes along his merry way without being distracted by the silly noise. But if he is wrong and it is a lion, well, he just might have made the most costly mistake of his life.

    It is a sort of Pascal’s wager, perhaps more sound than the original wager. It has helped many species, such as jumpy squirrels and flies escape death and it helped humans too.

    Now pair this bias toward assuming consciousness along with human curiosity about the world they didn’t understand and you get a natural recipe for the creation of religion. It was these unseen conscious being that controlled whether it would rain on your crops and if you were nice to them they would help you.

    Despite all of the bad things about religion atheist like to point out, it does have some advantages. Religion pulls together a community and helps them to work as a unit. It provides hope which is crucial to avoiding depression and continuing to live and have children. It sooths the sorrow of the death of a loved one by telling people that they will see them again after their own death. As some people fall into an existential crisis, dreading the coming of their own death, religion cures them by offering a better life after this one, one that doesn’t end. All of this provided a survival advantage upon humans who had a natural tendency for believing in gods and thus religion became a center of pretty much every human society.

    I know there is no evidence for God’s existence. I know that science has never discovered anything that wasn’t equally (or better) explained by natural processes. I know that the idea of a God that has the ultimate power to see everything, know everything, control everything, and be everywhere at once, but just happened to exist by chance at the beginning of the universe is so ridiculously unlikely as to not be worth wasting our time on. I know all of this, but STILL I get a warm fuzzy feeling every time I think of God. For someone who takes the ‘Vulcan’ approach of always trying to make decisions based on logic and not emotion, this is very disturbing. But it shows how much evolution shapes us as a species.

  • colluvial

    I’ve always rebelled against dogmatism.
    Religions have always been uninteresting to me.
    I don’t even seem to be susceptible to the placebo effect.
    What’s wrong with me?
    I guess I would have been culled from the herd in more dangerous times.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    It provides hope which is crucial to avoiding depression and continuing to live and have children.

    This, I don’t get. Seems to me that if I had a paradise waiting for me after death, and I was in need of hope, my hope would be to die and get to that paradise as soon as possible (if I were thinking in a logically consistent way at least). Every moment that the Xian spends here, instead of in paradise, is another wasted moment that could be spent in bliss.

  • Rollingforest

    @colluvial, perhaps you would have been fine (and are fine now), but there are many people for whom religion offers a solution to depression and sadness, thus also providing them with a survival advantage compared to what they would have without religion. Science in the modern world provides a much greater survival value to those who believe in it, but that wasn’t true in the ancient world. Even today, religious people have given up religious tenets (such as that the world is flat) in order to embrace helpful technology. Even creationists will admit that microbes can adapt to antibacterial medicine despite this being DIRECT evidence of evolution.

    @OMGF – you are right that this was a problem for many religions when depressed people began to latch on to it. So they invented the idea that suicide was a sin punishable by eternity in Hell, thus causing fear to override depression.

  • Cheryl

    This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker about “Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” a 2005 book by Pulizter Prize author Jared M. Diamond.

    The Greenland Norse, according to Diamond, tried to live a European way of life on Greenland, unwilling to adapt in the face of social collapse. They were farmers, so they farmed and built sod houses, ruining the top soil. And the farmers never turned to fishing — which would have offered an abundant and replenishable food source. The early settlers perished within a few hundred years.

    To me, it fits this theme of sticking with what you know, even when it fails.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @Rick #1: I have recently been reading the excellent book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology” (recommended by Julia Galef on the Rationally Speaking podcast #12).

    In closing the chapter on “Myths About Emotion and Motivation” one of the “Other Myths to Explore” that the authors offer is “Familiarity breeds contempt; we dislike things we’ve been exposed to more frequently” to which the authors respond “Research on the ‘mere exposure effect’ indicates that we typically prefer stimuli we’ve seen many times before to those we haven’t” (Lilienfeld, et all, pg 133). This seems to me at least indirect empirical evidence that dogmatism is, in a sense, wired into us. In other words, it seems likely (though by no means proved scientifically) that the reason we prefer familiar stimuli is, as Ebon argues, an artefact of evolution. (See, e.g. Borstein, R.F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 265-289.)

    Additionally, this paragraph from the Introduction (pg 19-20) seems apropos [citations omitted for ease reading; emphases original]:

    Debunking myths comes with its share of risks. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues showed that correcting a misconception, such as “The side effects of a flu vaccine are often worse than the flu itself,” can sometimes backfire by leading people to be more likely to believe this misconception later. That’s because people often remember the statement itself but not its “negation tag” – that is, the little yellow sticky note in our heads that says “that claim is wrong.” Schwarz’s work reminds us that merely memorizing a list of misconceptions isn’t enough: It’s crucial to understand the reasons underlying each misconception.

    Lastly, also from the Introduction (pg 10), on how “word-of-mouth” can be a source of misconceptions [emphases original]:

    The fact that we’ve heard a claim repeated over and over again doesn’t make it correct. But it can lead us to accept this claim as correct even when it’s not, because we can confuse a statement’s familiarity with its accuracy (Gigerenzer, 2007). [...] Furthermore, research shows that hearing one person express an opinion (“Joe Smith is the best qualified person to be President!”) 10 times can lead us to assume that this opinion is as widely held as hearing 10 people express this opinion once (Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, & Miller, 2007). Hearing is often believing, especially when we hear a statement over and over again.

    Again, although these cited passages do not really directly relate to evolution, nor its effects on human psychology, it seems at least likely (or perhaps at least possible) that these quirks in human psychology are a result of selection pressures which pushed us to associate familiarity with safety, and strangeness or differentness with danger, thus leading to dogmatism as a trait of human psychology.

  • http://orandat.wordpress.com Orandat

    @colluvial, I identify with what you said, except I have been susceptible to the placebo effect. More than once. I think a resistance to “go with the flow” is something most atheists have, and it's a good thing.

  • RollingStone

    Rollingforest:

    I am not alone in my belief that the concept of Hell is the worst religious idea ever. Personally, I’ve found that this belief leads to despair rather than hope. It cancels out all the hope that religion has to offer.

    Also, I’m curious: When you say that you “get a warm fuzzy feeling when [you] think of God,” which God are you talking about? I can think of several versions of God that give me the exact opposite of a warm fuzzy feeling.

  • Rollingforest

    Well, yes, I am referring to the general monotheist God. If you were to look at Pagan gods, these would give less of a warm fuzzy feeling because they only care about you when you sacrifice to them (but at least they give you some hope that your lot will change). The reason why Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions is because they DO have a God in their dogma which cares about what happens to you. I think this makes a lot of people feel good inside which is why around 4 billion people follow those faiths and why paganism is almost extinct in most of the world.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Rollingforest, the Islamic conception of God is much more aloof and uncaring, for what it’s worth; at least so far as the Muslims I knew and know attest. Indeed, Allah can be understood better as neutral than beneficent.

  • Rollingforest

    Well, that is certainly the West’s impression of Islam, but I’m somewhat skeptical of it. Here I found a Fundamentalist Christian site (so you know they don’t like Muslims) who says that Muslims believe Allah is loving and merciful. The author suggests that the only real difference between Allah and the Christian God is that Jesus died on the cross and Allah didn’t. But I think that Muslims do feel that Allah loves them or they wouldn’t have had such luck spreading their faith.

    http://www.carm.org/religious-movements/islam/who-has-performed-greatest-act-love-yahweh-or-allah

  • Zietlos

    If you think about it… Odin, he sat down and drank with you if you were down, and maybe helped you out in the ensuing barfight. Can’t think of a more loving god than that.

    For preventing suicide, I think the eastern religions have it better as an idea: the reincarnation thing. Doesn’t seem as disingenuous as torture for all eternity by a loving god, instead you just get to be a depressed turtle your next life, which is arguably worse than a depressed human.

    As for the article, maybe not an RHN entry, since those used to be theistic anti-virtues, more just a general article on a possible source for religiosity in humans.

    And to the rolling forest: Arguably, and yes it is arguably, religion served an important purpose back 3-4000 years ago as a way to impart survival techniques with minimal effort (all holy animals in their cultures are generally dangerous/poisonous if eaten, explain it as a deity’s punishment, since modern medicine theory did not exist yet). So it worked to stop people from eating undercooked pork. Whether or not that still applies in the modern world is a different matter, as rejecting vaccines does not seem like a continued sound survival technique.

    And besides, I get a warm feeling thinking of chocobo, and they are fictional too. But they’re so fluffy! We need to engineer one. It just goes to show that the internal warm feeling is an easily spoofed one, something we already knew from lab tests.

  • Rollingforest

    Right, but my main point was that there is a reason why otherwise rational people cling to religion today. It gives them easy answers to the nasty philosophical questions (what is the purpose of life? What happens after I die? What is the moral thing to do? Is there even morality in the first place? Is there anyone who truly loves me? Do I have free will? etc). Many people, both religious and secular avoid these questions by simply ignoring them. While theists are less rational than atheists, they may be more rational than people who choose simply to ignore the questions in the first place.

    Also, remember that ingrained instincts, such as being religious, continue in society even if we don’t need them any more.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    RollingForest, having lived in Iran for four-and-a-half years, and having been stationed in Saudi Arabia for a few months, I’m saying what I say based of personal experience and not western media images.

    eta: I personally think it’s simply a matter that most Muslims understand that “he who made kittens put snakes in the grass.” They’re a bit more Calvinistic than we generally think.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    For Rick:

    This seems to me to be a “just so” evolutionary argument. Though I agree that it is likely to have happened as you describe, your matter-of-fact “evolution has imprinted” makes it appear that this is settled evolutionary theory, when it seems to me to be incredibly difficult to have teased this kind of higher intelligence out of a fossil record.

    I’ll concede that this explanation, like the others I’ve presented in this series, is somewhat speculative. However, it does fit with known facts about human psychology (as Mat Wilder cited in his excellent comment). Of course, if anyone comes up with a better-supported one, I’ll be happy to change my mind. The point of my providing those explanations isn’t to give the final word on the origin of human nature, but to show how evolutionary explanations readily account for the way we are, as opposed to religious explanations which hold that a benevolent and just god created us with sinful impulses for no apparent reason.

    For AnonaMiss:

    @Ebon: Unlike the rest of your articles (that I remember) in this series, dogmatism is a quality that religious believers admire. IIRC, the original premise of your Reengineering Human Nature articles was to show how god, if he existed, could have fixed certain human flaws – and that their existence, combined with the easy evolutionary explanation for them, pointed towards a naturalistic origin of human life. It seems odd to include what your target audience would consider an admirable quality in your list of things-they-hate-that-god-could-have-prevented-but-hey-evolution-explains it.

    Fair point. However, I thought it’d be more interesting to branch out from the classic deadly sins and explore other aspects of human nature that we’d do better without. Besides, I think religious believers do consider dogmatism a character flaw when it’s found in members of other religions whom they’re trying to convert, labeling it “hard-heartedness” or the like. It’s one of those “I am strong in my faith; you are stubborn; he/she is dogmatic” kinds of things. :)

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @RollingForest: The importance of those questions is assumed. Not every assumes that they are important. :D

  • Rollingforest

    True, some people feel emotionally content with any answer to any of these questions. But there are a lot of people who aren’t. Most people do feel scared and worried when the assurance of things such as purpose, love, or morality just disappear because of a philosophical dilemma. That is part of the reason many of them cling to religion. Maybe some of those who ignore the questions have decided they aren’t worth asking, but most of the people simply can not be bothered to think outside their own little lives. Their happiness is sort of a default rather than a discovered thing.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @Eollinforest: I think you;re focusing on the religious here; I bet there are plenty of nonreligious individuals who hold that, say, “what is the meaning of life?” is itself a meaningless question. Myself for example. The meaning of life is whatever I assign to it; to ask what it’s objective meaning is, is to assume that there is an objective meaning (e.g. an answer which is the same for all individuals) which is something I doubt.

  • Rollingforest

    And I think that it is wonderful that you have come to that conclusion. I happen to agree with you. But my point is that it is difficult for many people to swallow and they may need to be eased into it slowly.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Ugh. That last comment of mine was just terrible. Guess I shouldn’t have that last White Russian last night. Wait; I SHOULD have had it; I SHOULDN’T have commented on a blog! :D

  • Rollingforest

    In other news: Here is an attempt by Christians to dance around the fact that God never appears to anyone in the modern day.

    http://www.gotquestions.org/God-hidden.html

  • John Nernoff

    With regard to evaluating twigs snapping and other unexpected sounds, those that right or wrongly conclude an enemy will take action and possibly save their lives (to go on to reproduce and transmit those useful genes). Those that ignore the possible warning will judge wrongly in some or many cases and eventually get winnowed out and these bad genes will not get passed on. No matter how incrementally beneficial the “good” genes are, over the enormous lengths of time (man, life) has been on the earth, this disparity will make a difference. The result will be our inheritance of fear and reflexes enabling us to sense danger whether it’s there or not.


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