Ideology is a significant form of belief system. The term was first coined by the French philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy, in 1796, during the French Revolution. In response to the chaos it brought about, he originally used the term to describe a science of ideas. However, with time, it has come to mean the following, as described in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
- an explanatory theory, of a more or less comprehensive kind, about human experience and the external world;
- a program, in generalized and abstract terms, of social and political organization;
- entailing a struggle for the realization of this program;
- seeking not merely to persuade, but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment;
- addressing a wide public but tending to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.
An ideology is a form of culture, and so, unites people into a group via its values, norms, beliefs, and symbols. Ideologies can be political, economic, business, social, or religious. The former four lay claim, correctly or incorrectly, to being rational and worldly, whilst the latter includes a significant element of superstition. An ideology can also be regarded as a collection of information, in the same way as a schema, paradigm or meme. Thus, it comprises, information which may be objectively true or false, information which satisfies the needs of an individual or group, and rationales which make it a consistent body of information.
Individuals will follow an ideology for the following reasons:
- It may provide a pre-established explanation of the world in which we live and, thus, satisfy our need for understanding.
- It is much easier to adopt and understand a convincing ideology than it is to develop one’s own worldview.
- It may be expounded by a role model.
- Its acceptance may be necessary to satisfy the social need of belonging to a group.
Unsurprisingly, people accept ideologies which appear to explain their condition and to be capable of providing satisfiers for their needs. Ideologies can also act as cognitive satisfiers by providing beliefs which are consistent with particular inherited predispositions and/or personality traits. Thus, people with a shared predisposition or personality trait, or people with a particular unsatisfied need, will often join an organisation that supports and promotes an ideology. This can result in a feedback process: the ideology attracts particular individuals who then modify, reinforce, support and promote it. Ideologies are not necessarily “bad” and in many cases they can be socially positive. However, this feedback process can lead to some extreme ideologies which diverge substantially from natural morality and ethics.
Ideologies usually offer overly simplistic explanations. Furthermore, they can be dogmatic rather than realistic, unwilling to accept criticism, and resistant to change. They can be unwilling to accept views which challenge their dogma, and so, make attempts to undermine them.
Everyone holds an ideology to some extent. Problems only arise when it is held strongly, and there is an unwillingness to change one’s view in the face of reality. The advantage of not holding an ideology strongly is that this frees the mind to alter one’s schemata so that they are consistent with the world that we actually observe. In this way, less effort is needed to psychologically manage any inconsistencies, resulting in greater mental wellbeing. More cognitive effort is, of course, needed to work out our own worldview, but this has the advantage of developing our cognitive skills and creativity.