Dogmatism: Empathy and Analytical Thought in Tension

Researchers from Case Western have recently expanded on research that might be interesting to FtB audiences. The university’s write up identifies previous research as finding that brain “circuits” for empathy and for analytical thinking are separate but use overlapping resources and are (perhaps because of this) used alternately more than they are simultaneously:

The researchers say the results of the surveys lend further support to their earlier work showing people have two brain networks—one for empathy and one for analytic thinking – that are in tension with each other. In healthy people, their thought process cycles between the two, choosing the appropriate network for different issues they consider.


But the current survey-based research goes further. It attempts to understand dogmatism. The researchers, Jared Parker Friedman and Anthony Ian Jack, performed questionnaire-based assessments of dogmatism, religious belief, and certain other factors, in part to see if dogmatism among atheists has a different origin than dogmatism among the religious.

The answer is yes … and no:

Religious fundamentalism was highly correlated with empathetic concern among the religious. … Decreasing empathy among the nonreligious corresponded to increasing dogmatism.

The religious dogmatists were poor at analytical thinking generally, while the atheist dogmatists were generally poor at empathy, but nonetheless lacked certain skills that the researchers describe as “higher critical reasoning” [though it’s unclear exactly what those are from publicly available sources].

However, one thing is very clear, whether or not someone feels empathy towards others, the ability to actually think from the perspective of someone else was deficient in both groups of dogmatists. So religious dogmatists will keenly feel the injustice inflicted on others, but in constructing responses will be unable to think analytically. Atheist dogmatists can think analytically about many issues, but more often examine those issues from a self-centered point of view.

This might just lend some more retroactive relevance to my gender workshop entry “How To Think Like You’re Not”. But the takeaway from these two studies is that we need not only encourage critical thinking among the religious and empathy among the atheists, but in addition we must teach and encourage the use of skills which allow examining questions of morality and policy from the perspectives of others.

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