Thursday, 19 July 2007

People who are dogmatic have poorer working memory

People who are narrow-minded and dogmatic have a poorer working memory capacity, which is what makes it harder for them to process new information. That's according to Adam Brown who tested 212 university students on a verbal working memory task.

The students listened to several sentences that had a word missing at the end, then after hearing all the sentences they had to propose words to fill in the gaps, in the right order.

They also completed a measure of dogmatism which gauged their agreement with statements like: “When it comes to differences in opinion in religion, we must be careful not to compromise with those who believe differently than the way we do.”

Brown found that the poorer a student's performance on the working memory task, the more likely they were to be dogmatic. Other measures such as their college admission exam performance (SAT), their age or gender didn't make any difference to this relationship.

“I predicted that it may be reasonable to expect differences in verbal working memory capacity, and this may directly affect one's ability to effectively process new information, especially if it is complex,” Brown said. “The results support this prediction.”
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Brown, A.M. (2007). A cognitive approach to dogmatism: An investigation into the relationship of verbal working memory and dogmatism. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 946-952.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

5 comments:

  1. Not having met many academics without strong opinions guess this means we shouldn't rely on professors to remember names of their students...or is it a test of religious beliefs masquading as science. If one were to, in the same way, apply political beliefs to the test would we expect different results? Could we then say that committed leftists or committed rightists lack memory? And how necessary is memory in an age of easy reference?

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  2. .... aha! Now I understand why I get more like Victor Meldrew as each year passes!

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  3. wanderingjew3:44 pm

    But, couldn't this just as easily be titled "People with poorer working memory are more likely to be dogmatic"? It feels more likely to me that both dogmatism and poor working memory are symptoms of an underlying diminished cognitive capacity. Phrasing it your way makes it sound like you can improve your working memory by consciously metering your dogmatism. I'd prefer to think that enhancing one's intelligence would have side effects of both better working memory and better critical thinking skills which would serve as a guard against dogmatism.

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  4. wanderingjew - good point but if w/m capacity and dogmatism were both simply byproducts of low intelligence, then you'd expect the relationship to be cancelled out once SAT performance was taken into account - but this didn't happen.

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  5. wanderingjew4:43 pm

    @christian jarrett - True, thanks for pointing that out.

    Still, a study like this can only ever establish correlation. And, if the next goal is determining causation, a mechanism theory is a healthy way to start. I can readily imagine a mechanism by which poor w/m leads to dogmatism (if it's hard to process information, falling back on a dogma could be an effective cognitive crutch).

    I can't so easily imagine the other way... unless dogmatism atrophies cognitive capacity, which then impacts w/m. But then we're back to an underlying attribute that is responsible for both.

    Perhaps an underlying aspect of cognition that is orthgonal to intelligence? Or at least an aspect of intelligence that is unmeasured by SAT performance? It seems to me that delta is rather large. Imagine a highly intelligent but wholly uneducated person that could have a fantastic working memory and be highly inoculated against dogmatism but who would score a big doughnut on an SAT exam.

    Anyway, I love the idea of getting any kind of research based hold on dogmatism; arguably one of the greatest causes of misery and suffering in the world today. Even if the only thing that ultimately comes of it is yet another reason to improve education across the board, it's always useful to have a scientific framework.

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