True Believers, a psychological profile

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True Believers, a psychological profile

#1  Postby Dennis Campbell » Feb 26, 2010 5:40 pm

Erich Fromm, in his Escape from Freedom, laid out some traits of “true believers,” here called “TB,” and they provide a nice beginning. “Freedom,” for the TB, in the sense of having available a range of options from which to chose, and for which to be responsible by that choice, is avoided at all costs. The presence of any one trait is not conclusive, all or almost all of these traits must be evident in one person before the label has any useful predictive power.


1. Perhaps one of the most striking traits, and I’ve seen them there many times on other forums, is that the TB tends strongly to engage in one-way discourses, from him or her to everyone else. Anyone not endorsing their particular belief system, theistic or otherwise, is promptly labeled some kind of idiot, heretic, fool, or some term that denigrates the questioning person.

2. Another trait that seems evident, in both theistic and secular TB people is that the individual is always subsumed by the posited ideology. “Hi, I’m a Christian (Muslim, Communist, Secularist, Recovering Alcoholic……) is more likely that “I’m John.” Personal identity is always wrapped closely in belief system. Clearly, any criticism of that belief system is then taken as a personal insult.

3. The TB adopts a belief system and subsumes themselves into it, that provides a marked expansion of individual claimed authority while at the same time, conveniently, it reduces any sense of personal or individual responsibility, provided of course that the TB keep that wrap closely wound around them. “Allah” or “God” says is so much more of an authority than “I think.” They may not be as common, but I suspect there are might be some who say, in the same TB way, that “Sam Harris” or “Dawkins” says.

4. A related trait, is that those who’ve “fallen away” from the belief system are almost always reviled and sometimes severely punished, as such people represent a threat of the TB’s sense of power and importance. People who previously do not subscribe to the ideology are actively sought out for subscription, as in some way those people as well offer a threat of inducing dissonance in the TB. So TBs tend to be actively “on the hunt” for both the “fallen,” and the uninitiated.

Ironically, as Fromm also noted, a previous TB in one belief system can quite rapidly transfer his or her endorsements to another, even contradictory system, provided the previous needs and traits are met. The fanatic Nazi becomes a fanatic Communist, was his example.

5. TB people, also as a clue, are not inclined to laugh at themselves or of course their beliefs, they tend to be a dour lot a best. Someone who can step aside and make even gentle fun of themselves, shows the ability to distantiate, which is not seen in TBs.

6. Force and violence, even if proscribed by the ideology, are quite often threatened or employed by TB people as they express their belief system, as judged by their behavior and not necessarily their words.

7. Only a small percentage of adherents any belief system can be usefully described as True Believers. They have to be distinguished from psychopaths or “con men,” who consciously claim to endorse and exploit any belief system for financial or political gain.

8. TBs can be found in secular as well as theist belief systems. Fromm was writing about some Nazi adherents, or Communist. It is not the case that a TD is found among those who believe that Ford is better than Chevy, unless that person somehow attributes his personal significance to Ford…...?!

9. TB people tend strongly to the “Black and White” thinkers, and moral “absolutists.” “Shades of grey” are not accepted by TB people, thus science tends to make them most uncomfortable. Further, TB people are inclined to make huge generalizations, lumping “Atheists,” as an example seen on this thread, as having all sorts of attributes not justified by simple observation.


10. The TB person strongly believes that his or her life is secondary to the belief system. They will sacrifice themselves, or someone else, quite readily if the “opposition” is too threatening.

11. The TB person is strongly disposed toward an authoritarian personality, in that some superior person or entity always has the final judgment. Often, the TB considers that s/he is in that superior relationship with anyone in opposition or dissention; and in that role force if available to the TB is readily threatened or employed.

TB people are more likely(?) to be found among the relatively uneducated and/or poor. I can speculate that a future TB person might’ve been a temperamentally sensitive child raised in a hostile, authoritarian, punishment oriented home, but that is just a speculation. It is certainly possible that some TB people can be found in universities, but that is much less likely given the skeptical values more likely to be expressed in a secular university setting.

As an aside, “Atheism” is NOT a believe system, that word simply means “not to share” some theism. It says nothing about what a particular person who is an atheist relative to one or more theisms does believe. Some of the knee-jerk apologists for a theism posting on forums seem to ignore that minor detail. They are engaging in “either/or” or “black and white” thinking. That kind of thinking tends to be quite normal in children and adolescents; most of us grow out of it.

So, someone behaves in a manner which is a reasonably close fit to being a “true believer.” So what? Well, maybe not a lot, but some predictions seem more likely that with other people:

1. They’re initially calm, assured and quite conclusive in their declarations, with no acknowledgment of any doubt or uncertainty, but under criticism or pointed doubts expressed about their declarations, will quickly become quite intensely angry and begin disparaging the doubters’ intelligence, integrity or education.

2. All knowledge sources are claimed to be from superior people or entities, with little originating from themselves and none from non-believers.

3. Their world and what they propose for others is one in which there’s a strict vertical hierarchy with authority coming from the top, that is not to be questioned but obeyed.

4. They divide the human race into two kinds of people: those who believe as does the true believer and those who do not. Those who do not are assigned into a subordinate and hopefully subservient class who do not deserve the rights and privileges assumed by the believers.

5. Democracy and any free and uninhibited exchanges of ideas is considered not acceptable nor tolerated. If the true believer has the means to impose their wishes on others, force is readily used with no great concerns about the consequences to non-believers.

6. True believers are most commonly men, and if so they consider women to be subordinate and inferior, and to be confined to quite restricted roles and social function. If they’re female, men are viewed as impaired or in some way defective.

7. Skepticism, science and reasoning, except sometimes where the tangible results of those efforts are of clear advantage to true believer, are suspect and restricted, with no free exchange of ideas permitted.

8. Judicial procedures are strictly secondary and subordinate to the tenets of the particular belief system endorsed by the true believer, and are not subject to debate. The accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent, with the burden of proof of innocence residing on the accused.

9. If the true believer resides in a society that as a whole does not endorse their beliefs, then the true believer does not consider that they need to govern themselves by any laws laid down by the larger society.

10. The psychological stability of the true believer rests entirely on the superior posited authority or entity remaining in effect, and if it happens that somehow that external and superior authority is removed, the true believer becomes quite unstable and may behave in a very erratic and self-destructive manner.

11. The welfare of everyone, including the true believer, is secondary to the preservation of the posited external authority; so acts of suicide or homicide in the absence of any immediate threats are considered acceptable.

12. Familial or friendship ties are secondary in importance to the true believer’s endorsement of and subservience to their belief system.

13. Thinking tends to be “either/or,” “true/false,” or “all/none” with little or no recognition of degrees of probability, ambiguity or vagueness. There is accordingly little or no tolerance for those conditions as expressed by others and they’re regarded as “weakness” or some form of impairment.

14. Any verbal or written dialogue is one way, from the true believer to everyone else; they lecture, preach or pronounce, and they do not discuss except perhaps about the best ways to display endorsement to the unquestioned belief system.

15. Knowledge or “truth” is considered by the true believer to always reside in or be defined by the authority of the belief system, and not by objective evidence. Any objective evidence considered by the true believer is only that which supports the belief system; any evidence that does not is denied or disparaged as invalid.

16. Epistemology is primarily by unquestioned acceptance of the tenets of the belief system and/or some unverifiable personal revelations immune from public scrutiny.

17. True believers tend to be grossly ignorant of and disinterested in any knowledge or belief systems apart from theirs. Further, they have little understanding of the thought processes, emotions or concerns of non-believers, which makes the true believer perhaps ironically more vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by others.

18. True believers, regardless of their intelligence, tend to be unimaginative and uncreative, as they cannot permit in themselves the freedom of cognitive speculation that is a requisite for imagination or creativity, as that would be too threatening to the stability of their brittle and limited base.

19. Associated with #18 above, true believers have little if any recognition or appreciation of others’ artistic or creative endeavors that does not clearly support their own belief system.

20. True believers have regulated, almost compulsive life styles, with little day to day variation.

21. Rules and dictums more than “guidelines” are rigidly followed as to thought or actions, with “value” more associated with how closely these are adhered to than any consequences that might be aversive to self or others.


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Extemporaneous 2.23.10
Edited 2.26.10
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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#2  Postby I'm With Stupid » Feb 26, 2010 5:42 pm

Gonna read this later.
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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#3  Postby my_wan » Feb 27, 2010 12:39 am

You speculated above that a "TB person might’ve been a temperamentally sensitive child raised in a hostile, authoritarian, punishment oriented home". Growing up in my family we often had intense debates that would sometimes last through the night and into morning. This included adults and even extended family members as a group. Yet never was there a single incidence of hostility. Certain outside people who observed this would get very uncomfortable, and couldn't imagine how we could say such things to each other without fights breaking out, though we were having fun.

My observation as the years passed was that some of the people most uncomfortable with this was also the ones most prone to TB. Even some who could join the debate effectively seemed to get exasperated at not getting certain tenants accepted in the process, and the least capable of mirroring alternative viewpoints to access content.

The point here is that, knowing the family relationships here, it doesn't seem to me to correlate that strongly with the environment. Though such environments can push these predispositions around quiet a bit the precepts appear to remain pretty stable. Here is a video showing some research on moral values:
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html
It's formated in the context of liberal vs conservative but is applicable in a wider contextual range. This disposition toward authority articulated in that video seems to me to be more predictive of TB than family history. One very striking memory I have as a kid is when I learned that someone, with essentially the same upbringing as mine, was shocked at a very fundamental level to learn that certain teachers in school weren't very bright. They were after all an authority. For me, even in kindergarten, this seemed too fundamentally obvious to even think about. Yet this person has a much higher IQ than I do.

So I think tagging the hostility and/or authoritarianism of the family home is not that productive a predictor of TB. The same can exist on both sides of the fence in entirely non-religious ways. The sixties was born out of a highly authoritarian social structure, just following the McCarthy years. That correlates (not necessarily causation) with a predictor in direct opposition to the authoritarian thesis. The same could be said about the Reagan/Bush conservatism as a response to the liberalization, only to swing back with Obama in response to Bush Jr. Ever looked at the murder rate spike in the sixties? In my view we gravitate toward or away from a predisposition to TB in opposition to the moral dilemmas we face, not toward predispositions consonant with our moral dilemmas. Yet as a group we have a spectrum of predefined predispositions in our tolerance for chaos.

This goes beyond my main point, but I think our predispositions are related to this video:
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/rebecca_saxe_how_brains_make_moral_judgments.html
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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#4  Postby Sityl » Feb 27, 2010 12:45 am

@my wan, I didn't read the whole wall of text, but based on how you described the all night debates, they didn't sound hostile as much as contentious, sporting, intellectual and fun!

When I think of an authoritarian household it doesn't include debate, just marching orders and punishment.
Stephen Colbert wrote:Now, like all great theologies, Bill [O'Reilly]'s can be boiled down to one sentence - 'There must be a god, because I don't know how things work.'


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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#5  Postby my_wan » Feb 27, 2010 1:01 am

num1cubfn wrote:@my wan, I didn't read the whole wall of text, but based on how you described the all night debates, they didn't sound hostile as much as contentious, sporting, intellectual and fun!

When I think of an authoritarian household it doesn't include debate, just marching orders and punishment.

The irony is that both my parents were highly authoritarian, including marching orders and punishment. We used to joke about my mother being the biggest male chauvinist in the state. Yet they never extended that authoritarian streak into our intellectual lives. My mother was a theist, yet some of the debates was with her from an atheist perspective. She never took self righteous offense to this.
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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#6  Postby Dennis Campbell » Feb 28, 2010 12:58 am

I distinguish authoritarian from authoritative, but in any event as far as I'm concerned, the origins of a TB personality are pretty speculative. I do not think they had much to do with American politics over thr last 50 years. It does seem(?) that there are more TB types these days in some of the fundamental Islamic people, perhaps such as the suicide bomber sometimes. Christianity had and has some examples as well.

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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#7  Postby my_wan » Feb 28, 2010 4:01 am

Yes, I was trying to draw on certain points in that video to make a point. But it probably wasn't that successful.

The thing is I watched some of these people I knew really well through these debates latch onto various forms of TB. One I know is into dianetics, some decided they didn't believe in money. I even know the predicates many of them built their belief system on. My grandmother (mothers side) had 14 kids and my mother had 6. My cousins run into several hundreds. It's no small group of people. What I noticed was a common thread, or set of variables, that set people up for TB. These variables was more predictive of peoples interpretations of their family experiences than the family experiences were on the variables.

The variables was at the most basic level how authority related to morality, with the wild card being the degree on which morality is considered absolute. Absolute truth can also replace absolute morality in this equation. When morality is taken as an absolute TB is an almost certainty, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they land on. The relationship between authority and absolutes tends to land a disproportionate share in the political right wing. Ironically authority can be either moral or immoral, good or evil, in both left and right wing. The case that doesn't believe in money put authority in the evil category, yet is right wing. The 'No True Scotsman' plays a pivotal role to maintain absolutes in the face of seemingly incongruent variables. TB in the left wing will more often replace absolute morality with absolute truth, but not always. Morality also has two sides, one hinges on control to maintain morality while the other hinges on an absolute lack of harm.

I could make a long list of the various combinations, but everybody lives within a spectrum across these extremes. I even have a default perspective, within a combination of those variables, that I must actively set myself outside of in order to modify that default in individual circumstances. Yet I've also noticed that if I actively shift my default perspective in a certain direction more often than the other, my automatic default will start shifting in that direction. The dynamics is at work in all of us regardless of upbringing. It's when we accept any hard rule as an absolute barometer of truth that we begin to slide inexorably toward TB. It can be quiet minor in the beginning, but through a long term process of cognitive dissonance everything must eventually land on one side of the fence or another, with 'No True Scotsman' guarding the gate.

Hopefully that did a better job of articulating my point.
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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#8  Postby Dennis Campbell » Feb 28, 2010 4:22 pm

Agree that an early familial or cultural environment that tends towards expressing absolutistic viewpoints is probably critical. They might also as well stress that "personal" meaning is derived from the extent to which a person endorses those viewpoints. Those "absolutes" could be theistic or secular, but they do not encourage or reward questioning, but compliance. There's also, I'd guess, got to be some real and continuing hostility or threat in that absolute, either posed as enemies or consequences of failure to endorse.

What does seem reasonably clear is that however established, the TB personality is a durable, maybe lifelong and fairly stable trait. Abandoning the ideological "frame of reference" in which one is completely defined has got to be a difficult task, as absent a radical and lasting change in the social environment, that's where the TB seeks and gets reinforcement.

Interesting speculations.

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Re: True Believers, a psychological profile

#9  Postby my_wan » Feb 28, 2010 7:19 pm

Dennis Campbell wrote:Agree that an early familial or cultural environment that tends towards expressing absolutistic viewpoints is probably critical.
This contains the crux of what I'm rejecting in my opinion. Sure the early familial or cultural environment plays a role in how predispositions get expressed. Yet for any random individual the effect of a particular environment can vary randomly. Consider a case where a child grows up in a very liberal questioning environment and has lots of freedom for self expression. As this child grows up they began to abhor the choices and actions of their past. Tying cats together and hanging them over a cloths lines, among other distasteful actions. As a result they rebel against the freedoms they were afforded. They select these absolutes, based on their experience, that should never be crossed. Through cognitive dissonance these absolutes begin to invade more and more intellectual areas. They grow up to raise kids in this strict environment, to which the kids rebel in the opposite direction. Such strict rule sets certainly seem more morally draconian than anything else in their experience. This is just a caricature of opposites to illustrate the point, but I can point to cases where it's generally cogent.

You can't necessarily point to an environment and say what what that is going to entail for any given individual. We tend to take the things we see as most wrong from our past and moralize to preclude them. This can get sticky due to addictive behaviors in which we feel powerless to change about ourselves. Thus the old maxim: Do as I say not as I do.

Dennis Campbell wrote:They might also as well stress that "personal" meaning is derived from the extent to which a person endorses those viewpoints. Those "absolutes" could be theistic or secular, but they do not encourage or reward questioning, but compliance. There's also, I'd guess, got to be some real and continuing hostility or threat in that absolute, either posed as enemies or consequences of failure to endorse.
The endorsement issue is quiet complex in itself. Take two siblings, one which endorses the view of the authority and one doesn't. The one who endorses the authority view and stays out of trouble can very likely grow up to become disillusioned with that authority. The one who rebels, and gets into all kinds of trouble, is likely to later moralize their own actions and decide the authority knew best after all. Thus it is rebellion and later moralizing that gives authoritarian dispositions such generational stickiness, not endorsement. Mind you, I am intentionally neglecting a spectrum of predispositions in order to illustrate the point through fairly extreme opposites.

Dennis Campbell wrote:What does seem reasonably clear is that however established, the TB personality is a durable, maybe lifelong and fairly stable trait. Abandoning the ideological "frame of reference" in which one is completely defined has got to be a difficult task, as absent a radical and lasting change in the social environment, that's where the TB seeks and gets reinforcement.
Yes the durability of TB, once established, opens a whole new can of worms. It's as if the TB construct becomes a part of the qualia of consciousness in the world around us. Even the visual qualia we perceive as the reality of the world around us is a stripped down repackaged easily manipulated version of what our senses actually see. I wrote an explanation of this in the context of consciousness itself here:
http://www.rationalskepticism.org/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=130&start=20#p8446
Our intellectual constructs are themselves experiences that are likewise a packaged the same way for essentially the same purpose. I don't see the durability of TB as anything fundamentally different than the durability of this illusion, even when you intellectually know exactly what's happening:
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/al_seckel_says_our_brains_are_mis_wired.html

Dennis Campbell wrote:Interesting speculations.

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