Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and the human prefrontal cortex

Neuropsychology. 2012 Jul;26(4):414-21. doi: 10.1037/a0028526. Epub 2012 May 21.


Objective: The psychological processes of doubting and skepticism have recently become topics of neuroscientific investigation. In this context, we developed the False Tagging Theory, a neurobiological model of the belief and doubt process, which proposes that the prefrontal cortex is critical for normative doubt regarding properly comprehended cognitive representations. Here, we put our theory to an empirical test, hypothesizing that patients with prefrontal cortex damage would have a doubt deficit that would manifest as higher authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism.

Method: Ten patients with bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), 10 patients with damage to areas outside the vmPFC, and 16 medical comparison patients, who experienced life-threatening (but non-neurological) medical events, completed a series of scales measuring authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and specific religious beliefs.

Results: vmPFC patients reported significantly higher authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism than the other groups. The degrees of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in the vmPFC group were significantly higher than normative values, as well; by contrast, the comparison groups did not differ from normative values. Moreover, vmPFC patients reported increased specific religious beliefs after brain injury.

Conclusions: The findings support the False Tagging Theory and suggest that the vmPFC is critical for psychological doubt and resistance to authoritarian persuasion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Authoritarianism*
  • Brain Injuries / etiology
  • Brain Injuries / pathology*
  • Brain Injuries / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Psychometrics
  • Religion*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed