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Friday, August 25, 2023

The cognitive foundations of ideological orthodoxy: Threat avoidance, ingroup mobilization, & signaling

Marie, A., & Petersen, M. (2023, March 10).


Political and religious movements often bind around shared mobilizing narratives. In their most devoted activists, this triggers moral motivations to affirm and protect the narrative from being argumentatively challenged (i.e., orthodox mindsets), with free expression and nuance as the primary casualties. The ideological narratives are often threat-based, denouncing an evil or villains encroaching on a sacred value, such as national grandeur, the faith, or class, racial, or gender equality. Their protection triggers repressive reactions ranging from expressions of outrage or public shaming on social media to the “deplatforming” of controversial speakers to censorship and imprisonment of dissidents. Orthodox mindsets are puzzling because of the often disproportionate righteousness with which they try to protect cherished narratives. We suspect that orthodox mindsets may derive from three main evolved cognitive foundations. First, over-sensitive dispositions to detect threat, from human outgroups in particular. Second, motivations to mobilize ingroup members for cooperative benefits and against rival groups by emphasizing goals relevant to everyone. Third, signaling personal devotion to causes one’s allies value to accrue prestige within the ingroup. In line with arguments about self-deception, strategies of ingroup mobilization and signaling may be most likely to meet their evolved functions when displayed by activists sincerely committed to the ideological movement’s tenets.

  • Devout activists of political and religious movements often display moral motivations to repress critiques of mobilizing narratives
  • The protected narratives are often rigid and hard-to-falsify accounts of a social threat
  • We propose that such orthodox mindsets tap at least three evolved cognitive systems: threat  (over) detection and attempts to mobilize the ingroup and acquire status (signaling)
  • Cognitive systems of mobilization and signaling pursue social goals, that may be more likely to be reached when activists endorse the threat-based narrative sincerely, and view its truth as identity-defining

Moral motivations to protect rigid and hard-to-falsify threat-based narratives from contestation is a characteristic feature of many political and religious movements.  Such orthodox mindsets may be rooted in cognitive instincts which function is to try to maintain mobilization of followers for moralized causes—fighting outgroup threats in particular—and to signal devotion to those causes to gain status. Future research should explore further the content properties that make ideological narratives compelling, the balance between their hypothetical functions of mobilizing and signaling, and the factors susceptible to moderate orthodox urges