Fanaticism refers to an intense, uncritical devotion to a cause or belief often characterized by refusal to entertain contrary opinions. Inspired by Eric Hoffer's seminal book, "The True Believer," my research explores the factors and contexts contributing to fanaticism and related psychological states like extremism. A key finding is the role of "misplaced certainty," which is a sense of certainty despite lack of evidence or in the face of skepticism from others. This phenomenon, we've discovered, often precipitates fanatical behaviors such as aggression, willful ignorance, and joining extremist groups.
In our recent study involving 3,277 participants, we focused on "discordant knowing"—the feeling of certainty about a belief perceived as controversial or wrong by most others—as a potential underpinning of fanaticism. Our findings suggest that individuals manipulated to hold discordant views showed increased indicators of fanaticism. This heightened fanaticism was observed in real-world contexts as well, such as beliefs about the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and the morality of abortion. Notably, individuals identified as anti-vaccine fanatics and members of a fanatical religious group exhibited higher levels of discordant knowing than non-fanatical individuals.
In another article, we propose that misplaced certainty could also illuminate why conspiracy theories sometimes escalate into action, violence, and other antisocial behaviors. Specifically, when individuals harbor conspiracy theories with misplaced certainty, they may be more likely to act upon these beliefs.
Gollwitzer, A., Olcaysoy Okten, I., Osorio Pizarro, A., & Oettingen, G. (2022). Discordant Knowing: A Social Cognitive Structure Underlying Fanaticism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Summary: Researchers examined the link between discordant knowing (holding firm knowledge contrary to others' beliefs) and fanaticism in nine studies with 3,277 participants. Manipulating participants' views to align with discordant knowing heightened indicators of fanaticism, including aggression and a desire to join extreme groups. The findings suggest that discordant knowing plays a key role in fostering fanaticism and highlight the importance of investigating this construct from an epistemic-social-cognitive perspective.
Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, A., Jung, J., & Olcaysoy Okten, I. (2022). Misplaced Certainty in the Context of Conspiracy Theories. Current Opinion in Psychology.
Summary: This theoretical paper examines how misplaced certainty, characterized by unwavering conviction despite lacking evidence or facing skepticism, can help explain when conspiracy beliefs are associated with antisocial actions. Misplaced certainty has been linked to negative social outcomes, including increased aggression, deliberate ignorance, and alignment with extreme groups. By considering the role of misplaced certainty, we gain insights into the circumstances that contribute to the harmful behavioral consequences of conspiracy beliefs.
Okten, I. O., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2022). When Knowledge is Blinding: The Dangers of Being Certain About the Future. Personality and Individual Differences.
Summary: We examined the psychological experience of being certain about the future. Studies (N=1218) revealed that certainty about the future predicted ignorance, conspiratorial thinking, lower knowledgeability (Study 1), and antisocial behaviors like failing to social distance (Study 2) during COVID-19. In the context of the 2020 Presidential Election, future certainty predicted poor information seeking and endorsing violence (Study 3). Future certainty is linked to intellectual blindness and antisocial behaviors during uncertain times.
Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2019). Paradoxical knowing: A shortcut to knowledge and its antisocial correlates. Social Psychology.
Summary: To avoid uncertainty, people sometimes claim to know something that they acknowledge as unknowable. This paradoxical knowing was observed across different topics and emotions in Study 1. Study 2 found that high goal-incentives led to increased paradoxical knowing, where individuals felt certain about achieving important future goals despite acknowledging their unknowability. However, paradoxical knowing can have negative consequences, as shown in Study 3, where it was associated with aggression, determined ignorance, and a willingness to join extreme groups.