The Key to Understanding Fundamentalist Psychology

Why do fundamentalists persist with untenable doctrines? After all, the foundation of fundamentalist belief is Biblical inerrancy, and it’s not hard to demonstrate the problems with that. But, as you’ll know if you’ve tried, getting a fundamentalist to consider problems with her beliefs is… challenging.

Enter Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. His classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is fascinating to me. It discusses what Cialdini calls “weapons of influence”: psychological factors which influence our behaviour, and which are open to exploitation. I think all of these help to explain fundamentalist behaviour, but one stands out to me: Commitment and consistency. There are enormous internal and external pressures for us to think in ways which our consistent with our past words and actions. Once you’ve made a declaration of fundamentalist faith, and done a few things that fundies do (attending church, evangelism, giving money to religious causes), that’s a strong driver to keep doing the same thing. After twenty years, it’s almost immovable.

Robert Cialdini's Influence front cover


Fundamentalist schools are frequently charged with indoctrination, and I want to look at this charge in connection with the psychological evidence of commitment and consistency. Cialdini describes psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Frasers data. A researcher had made a “preposterous request” of California homeowners: They were asked to erect a huge, badly written sign saying “Drive Carefully.” This sign obscured most of the front of their house. A full 76% agreed. What was going on?

It turns out that two weeks earlier, another researcher had asked these homeowners to make a small commitment to driver safety. They had been asked to display a three-inch square sign that said Be a Safe Driver. Of course, with such a tiny request, most of them had said yes. But now, the researchers explain:

“What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.”

Cialdini discusses in some detail how the Chinese were able to change the beliefs of American POWs in the Korean war.

“Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. What the Chinese have discovered is that the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is aprimary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. Understanding fully this important principle of self-perception, the Chinese set about arranging the prison-camp experience so that their captives would consistently act in desired way. Before long, the Chinese knew, these actions would begin to take their toll, causing the men to change their views of themselves to align with what they had done.

“Writing was one sort of confirming action that the Chinese urged incessantly upon the men. It was never enough for the prisoners to listen quietly or even to agree verbally with the Chinese line; they were always pushed to write it down as well. So intent were the Chinese on securing a written statement that if a prisoner was not willing to write a desired response freely, he was prevailed upon to copy it. The American psychologist Edgar Schein describes a standard indoctrination session tactic of the Chinese in these terms: ‘A further technique was to have the man write out the question and then the [pro-Communist] answer. If he refused to write it voluntarily, he was asked to copy it from the notebooks, which must seemed like a harmless enough concession.’”

But it wasn’t harmless. By the end of the war, Dr. Henry Segal, chief of the neuropyschiatric evaluation team examining the POWs, reported that their war-related beliefs had substantially shifted. Some praised the Communists for “the fine job they have done in China.”

Now, compare this with a fundamentalist school such as mine, where, in accordance with Accelerated Christian Education policy, we were required to recite two pledges every day:

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ

“I pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, crucified, risen, and coming again as King, with life and liberty for all who believe.”

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible

“I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. I will hide its words in my heart, that I might not sin against God.”

In addition, ACE tests require you to write down their theological positions as the correct answers, or fail the test. If there’s a test about Creation, you have to write that God made man on the sixth day, or lose the mark. And the evidence from psychology is that, even if you didn’t believe that, the act of writing it down could change your perception in favour of that belief. Writing that, and other supporting ideas, every day, for years, is going to have a considerable belief-shaping effect. That, of course, is exactly what the curriculum designers had in mind.

There’s another problem, as Cialdini explains:

“Think of the double-barreled effects on the self-image of a prisoner who wrote a pro-Chinese or anti-American statement. Not only was it a lasting personal reminder of his action, it was also likely to persuade those around him that the statement reflected his actual beliefs. And, as we will see in Chapter 4, what those around us think is true of us is enormously important in determining what we ourselves think is true. For example, one study found that after hearing that they were considered charitable people, New Haven, Connecticut housewives gave much more money to a canvasser from the Multiple Sclerosis Association. Apparently, the mere knowledge that somone viewed them as charitable caused these women to make their actions consistent with another’s perception of them.

“Once an active commitment is made, then self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure – a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us.”

What, then, do you think the effect of saying the pledge of allegiance to Jesus and the Bible might be on a child? Remember, everyone has to say those pledges in an ACE school. From the child’s point of view, this is what everybody believes, and there is no alternative.

I’m reminded of Professor Brian Hill’s assessment:

“ACE stands in direct line of succession to those who sought, by emotional manipulation, to obtain decisions for Christ which by-pass the individual’s rational autonomy, but it cashes in also on the improved manipulative techniques discovered by modern behavioural psychology.”

This is a huge topic I plan to approach over several posts. Already, I think we can begin to see how students in ACE are manipulated and conditioned into belief, rather than arriving at it of their own volition. This is why I think Christians should oppose it. I don’t think Jesus would want followers who are programmed into faith. This is an unethical way to gain religious conversion. For ACE, the end justifies the means. For people of moral values, however, it is an unacceptable level of control.

Related posts:

Republican gave his daughters to a rapist because they were “possessed by demons”
Sorry, Tim Minchin, the Bible just doesn’t say that about rape
Indoctrination as a wedge strategy: faith schools and foot-in-the-door techniques
Culture war lost as Christians discover puns
About Jonny Scaramanga
  • Adam Benton

    Richard Wiseman’s “59 seconds” also covers research on persuasion, including the lawn sign experiment. However, when I was reading it I never thought of applying it all to religion. Looking back, it seems to make sense.

  • M. Rodriguez

    at our church we had the awanas pledge for the lil kids….

  • Stephen

    Understanding the psychology of fundamentalism is always going to be a multi-approach problem. Cialdini and his stuff on influence is but one part of the whole. Probably no one has described the whole because it is too big. I am a student of these things, meaning that I try to keep up in this area and I would like to share a little of my stuff. The cult literature is bedevilled by a debate about ‘brain-washing’ with those who claim this is the key to the problem and those who want to downplay it. The person on whom most writers depend when talking about the brain-washing theme is Robert Lifton and his work on brain-washing during the Korean War. The stuff is OK as far as it goes. When you talk to actual fundamentalists, both active and former, what you encounter primarily is a situation of need, emotional need that in some way belonging to the group is alleviating. Most human need of this kind has to do with whether our parents made a good job of bringing us up or not. There are many human needs one can identify but the relevant one in this area of fundamentalists belonging is that of personal identity. Who am I? Am I dependent on myself, on God or on the group? The ‘good enough’ parenting brings us up to make the transition from childhood to adulthood with relatively little trauma but it is a big shift and the Christian Unions at University and other groups aimed at young people who are frightened of making this change from dependence to independence. Fundamentalist groups and ideas offer a haven for people who are frightened of being grown up and losing the moorings of being dependent as they were when they were children. Fortunately most people pass through this stage of using the intense bonding as a stage in growing up and find adulthood on their own, albeit a bit delayed. The tragic ones are those who cannot escape and are locked in a cycle of dependence, not on God but on the leaders who continue to be the emotional equivalent of a family.

    Fundamentalism then has intellectual and emotional aspects. It draws people in at many levels. What I have been describing is but one aspect which is seldom discussed. There is one book on my shelves called Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity by Peter Herriot. This highlights the way that belonging helps us to cope in the world and the particular way that extreme beliefs work. I want to repeat my point that the psychology of Fundamentalism is many faceted. I choose to work in the area of need psychology because that is the prevailing symptom that I see. Dealing with or at least trying to understand the background needs of an individual rather than arguing with the convoluted belief system that they have adopted seems a more productive way forward. That of course needs to be done. I would interested to hear from anyone doing similar study. I seem to be very much on my own, though my work has brought me into contact with a fair number of ‘survivors’. I am a retired Anglican priest. Incidentally my comments apply really to individuals who are drawn in during late teens early adulthood. Jonny’s scenario raises a new set of questions

  • jonnyscaramanga

    Thank you Stephen. Perhaps my title “The key to understanding…” is misleading and overambitious. I do think consistency pressures explain a lot why people can be reluctant to leave situations which have become obviously bad, though. Your information is very helpful and I’ll follow up the book you recommend.

  • Rick Searle
  • Stephen

    Thanks for this Rick. The Book of Revelation has influenced the Christian imagination in many ways for good and for ill. There is another fascinating book by an American writer that I admire, C.B. Strozier called Apocalypse, On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America. It came out in 1994 and takes a different approach linking the Apocalypse to the individual psyche. It discusses the way that Apocalypse language sometimes resonates with splits deep within the personality. When an individual identifies with all the death and destruction in the book of Revelation, it may be that they are aware of bad parts of themselves that they want to disown and thus want to destroy. Revelation provides plenty of material for people who ‘wallow’ in extermination fantasies of enemies, internal or external. This may seem a bit heavy for some to be talking about splits in the personality, but it does help us to have some insight into the common feature of fundamentalist thinking which is to think in a dualistic way i.e. everything is either very good and white or very bad and black. There are no ambiguities or grey areas in the mind. As with my previous post, I am once again saying how much stuff there is out there. The Americans have been studying and writing about these issues much longer than we in Britain, possibly because all the problems are bigger for them. Thanks to the net, all these books are available to us in Britain.

  • poiemapoetry

    Much to think about. My own experience of conservatism which erred towards fundamentalism was that while I felt there was group pressure to accede to certain doctrines and practices, this didn’t work at all with my need to question and work towards my own conclusions. Even though there was a great conflict between my need and the group identity, breaking away from the group still caused me a lot of stress and even depression. Perhaps if I hadn’t been such an ornery person, I wouldn’t have done it!

    It’s a long time since I left that particular church and way of thinking, but what I carry with me from the experience is the sense that for those who accepted it, there was safety and comfort in belonging to it. I distinctly remember being in a meeting once when the leader asked, ‘so who here doesn’t believe in the seven day creation?’ as a rhetorical question – well I put my hand up, and I still remember the many anxious eyes trained upon me.

    So I liked what you said about need, Stephen, and for what it’s worth, with my own limited experience and study (I did undergraduate psychology) I would agree that need is likely to be a root issue in understanding fundamentalism. Need can be for many different things and be expressed in many different ways, but it is certainly one of the most powerful forces in our lives.


  • Matthew Pocock

    I agree that this kind of “commitment and consistency” persuasion is a pervasive feature of fundamentalist culture. Both in group situations and also in the more pastoral settings the things is to show how you are willing to behave correctly, even if it’s acknowledged that you do not yet believe or feel correctly. You give partly in the hope that you will gain a giving nature. You server partly in the hope that you will develop a serving nature. The doing makes it so.

    This is synergistic with black-and-white thinking, another central pillar of fundamentalism. You are right or wrong. You are part of our group or an outsider. You look like us and act like us or you are untrustworthy and fallen. The binary nature of all things is a constant, even if the details of what falls one side or the other changes. Half the time the two things placed in opposition aren’t even opposites, by any rational measure. Adults should be dealing with shades of grey. Fundamentalist thinking is trapped in late childhood, with awareness that situations are complex but without the capacity to reach complex judgements.

  • christianagnostic

    This is an older, but still fascinating example of “herd mentality”.

  • jonnyscaramanga

    Thanks for that! I studied that in psychology at college, but never saw the video. Very interesting.