Commentary Magazine

The Open and Closed Mind, by Milton Rokeach

Dogmatism and Opinionation
The Open and Closed Mind.
by Milton Rokeach.
Basic Books, 447 pp., $7.50.


This thought-provoking book follows the tradition of such modern classics as Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom and The Authoritarian Personality by T. W. Adorno, et al. Investigating the psychology of people who hold dogmatic systems of belief, Rokeach seeks to develop criteria by which a “closed” mind can be validly distinguished from an “open” mind. One need hardly stress the relevance of such research for understanding the various forms of prejudice, the psychology of the True Believer, and the history of cultural innovation.

A major point of departure for Rokeach’s studies were the investigations by Adorno and his associates which culminated in the publication of The Authoritarian Personality in 1950. This research, which began in 1943 when, for obvious reasons, anti-Semitism had assumed a peculiar saliency for social scientists, gradually was broadened to include other forms of intolerance as well. As the research progressed, the study’s well-known F scale, originally designed to measure personality traits underlying a fascist outlook, was used to test authoritarianism in general, and so those who scored high on this scale were hence dubbed “authoritarian.” The results showed that such people tended to be ethnocentric, intolerant of Negroes and Jews, and politically conservative. But the shift from measuring “fascism in personality” to measuring the “authoritarian personality” led to some awkward difficulties. As a number of critics pointed out, the scale did not in fact reveal authoritarianism per se, but only right-wing authoritarianism. More particularly, the test items were so worded that members of the Communist party did not emerge as authoritarian if they were measured by the F scale.

Rokeach argues that the change from studying right-wing authoritarianism in the 40′s to left-wing authoritarianism in the 50′s can be explained in terms of the fascist and Communist threats during the respective periods. He maintains that the time has now come to broaden the approach and to ask whether it is not possible to distinguish between “open” and “closed” minds irrespective of particular ideologies. Rokeach urges that we differentiate sharply between the structure of ideological systems and their content: an individual, for example, may accept all the traditional pieties of liberal belief and yet hold them in a dogmatic way; or, again, some belief systems, undogmatic in content but authoritarian in structure, may advocate tolerance in an intolerant way. Rokeach further argues that while we know a great deal about ethnic intolerances, we know comparatively little about intolerance among Freudians, Unitarians, liberals, literary critics, or professors of psychology. His “Dogmatism” and “Opinionation” scales—which have no reference to a thought’s content and allegedly are sensitive enough to uncover dogmatic thought both within the realm of politics and outside of it—are designed to close these gaps in our knowledge. The tests in which these scales were applied reveal no clear-cut relation between the content of political ideology and dogmatism and opinionation (despite a slight tendency for more people right of center than left to be “closed”): a group of English Communists who scored low on The Authoritarian Personality’s F scale, scored high on the Dogmatism scale, and rightist American Catholics as well as American leftists, who on the F scale scored at opposite poles, both scored high on Dogmatism and Opinionation.

In a variety of laboratory tests, primarily with students, subjects were faced with a series of tasks whose solution depended on the adaptation of beliefs at odds with ones they held previously. The tests showed that the relatively “open” person differs significantly from the relatively “closed” person in both cognitive abilities (such as problem-solving, remembering, and perceiving) and emotional experience. They also differ in their ability to enjoy unconventional “twelve-tone-music.” In short, the “open” person is more willing to entertain new ideas, to synthesize new beliefs, to reconcile the new with the old.



This is not the place to discuss in detail a number of technical difficulties that these studies raise. A few examples must suffice; (1) traits that occur in clusters among college students are not necessarily associated with each other among other parts of the population; (2) since the sample consists almost exclusively of students about whose social origins we are not informed, one is unable to judge whether or not the correlations are spurious, i.e., whether another factor, such as middle-class values, can account for both “openness of mind” and special cognitive abilities or the taste for twelve-tone music. That is, the author tends to assume that openness of mind has a direct effect on certain cognitive abilities. But one can also hypothesize that the organization of belief systems and cognitive abilities are both rooted in social circumstances and experiences. Consider, for example, the following statement, agreement with which is scored by Rokeach as “closed”: “In the long run the best way to live is to pick friends and associates whose tastes and beliefs are the same as one’s own.” Does agreement with this statement reveal a “closed mind,” psychologically speaking, or does it instead express opposition to the middle-class stereotype of the desirability of “mixing”?

But rather than dwell further on such fairly technical questions or to report in more detail on other experiments, let me discuss another of Rokeach’s general theories and then raise a more fundamental issue. The author avers that prejudice is not based on rejection of ethnic or racial characteristics, but on imagined differences between the in- and out-group concerning values and beliefs. Anti-Negro prejudice, for example, can be reduced to a set of beliefs about Negro values and life-styles; then if it turns out that Negro beliefs agree rather than disagree with white beliefs, the prejudice will tend to disappear. What is central is the congruity or incongruity of beliefs, not ethnic or racial bias.

Even if this is a correct interpretation of the psychological basis for prejudice, it still does not account, as Rokeach himself notes, for ethnic discrimination which is institutionalized or sanctioned by law. Moreover, and more importantly, it fails to take into account the fact that, to quote Robert K. Merton, “the systematic condemnation of the out-grouper continues largely irrespective of what he does.” The in-group, in fact, readily transmutes virtue into vice and vice into virtue; the ethnic out-groups are damned if they adopt in-group values and damned if they don’t.



There remains the basic issue raised by the book: the author’s conception of the “open mind.” As the reader peruses the items which make up the Dogmatism and Opinionation scales he notes that what they measure can hardly be the relative openness of a mind but rather its relative emptiness. Rokeach’s open mind turns out upon inspection to have all the properties of a sieve. For example, Rokeach scores agreement with the following statements as “closed,” disagreement as “open”: “The main thing in life is for a person to want to do something important”; “If I had to choose between happiness and greatness, I’d choose greatness” ; “A map who does not believe in some great cause has not really lived.” One is also “closed” if he agrees with the following statements: “It is only when a person devotes, himself to an ideal or cause that life becomes meaningful”; “In times like these, a person must be pretty selfish if he considers primarily his own happiness.” It is clear that Rokeach equates closure with strong commitment, and he fails entirely to consider the fact that a committed map by no means need have a closed mind. One cannot help think that most of the intellectual giants of the past would be considered “closed minds” if measured by Rokeach’s criteria.

When Rokeach discusses the peculiar orientations of the authors of the Authoritarian Personality, as well as of their critics, he suggests that all their work should be understood in terms of the Zeitgeist of the period during which it was done. We might now apply this approach to his own orientation, and conclude that Rokeach, beholden as he is to the ideological pieties of an age which proclaims the end of ideology, confuses openness with vacuity. Rokeach’s open-minded man resembles nothing so much as David Riesman’s “other directed man” who, as Riesman writes, “receives signals from far and near The sources are many, the changes rapid. What can be internalized then, is not a code of behavior but the elaborate equipment needed to attend to such messages.”

In so far then as careers in mass society are now available to open-minded people unhampered by the weight of commitment, Rokeach’s scales can be highly recommended to personnel chiefs and other organization men; they can use them to help screen out those disturbers of the intellectual peace who believe that “it is only when a person devotes himself to an ideal or cause that life becomes meaningful,”



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