This column will change your life: It's not easy always being right | Oliver Burkeman

The world is divided, as the saying goes, into people who think they are right. That said, I feel slightly awkward writing a column about the psychology of dogmatism – about the desperate need to be right that seems to consume so many people's lives – because I myself, as it happens, actually am always right. To family and friends, I realise, it can sometimes seem as if I'm just annoyingly argumentative and prone to infuriating bouts of heel-digging. But what can I say? As so often, they're wrong.

For everyone who isn't me, though, there's much to ponder in a new study of dogmatism, What's So Wrong With Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief, by the Canadian psychologist Judy Johnson. The very idea of studying dogmatism per se is a fairly innovative one: for decades, the focus has been on explaining specific dogmatisms, such as why, say, people end up staunchly liberal or conservative. That research has delivered some ego-boosting findings for the average Guardian reader: in one longitudinal study, self-reliant, energetic and resilient children grew up to become liberals, while fearful, inhibited and easily offended types went on to become rightwingers. On the other hand, conservatives are happier, or at least tell researchers they are. This, as one rightwing columnist pointed out, is a self-reinforcing finding: it makes liberals depressed when they hear it.

But to put aside the content and to investigate the nature of dogmatism itself is to raise the alarming possibility that, as a dogmatic liberal, you might have something crucial in common, psychologically speaking, with dogmatic conservatives – or that entrenched atheists and entrenched evangelicals might share similar motivations. What that something is, in Johnson's analysis, isn't necessarily all that surprising: dogmatism, she argues, results from an effort to satisfy several basic needs, including a feeling of safety in the face of anxiety. (One fascinating passage suggests that parents who respond to babies' distress by shouting, rather than comforting them – denying them safety in the face of anxiety, in other words – help them become adult dogmatists.) Yet, she writes, "In their search for protection against anxiety, they create the very monster that ends up intensifying it." Rigid, absolutist certainties are far more likely to collide, in an anxiety-inducing fashion, with the messy and uncertain way things really are – or, alternatively, with the dogmatists on the other side.

What's striking isn't the explanation itself, but how resistant we are to applying it, or any kind of psychological explanation, to our own beliefs. With other people's beliefs, it's fine: I don't mind being told that the gun-toting anti-communists heckling Barack Obama, or people who vote BNP, are acting out of fear and anxiety. But any psychological account of, for example, my opposition to the death penalty – even a flattering one that doesn't paint me as fearful and anxious – seems like an insult: I'm opposed to the death penalty, I deeply want to believe, because it's wrong. No further explanation required, surely?

But Johnson's perspective makes that approach decidedly hard to maintain. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm any less right to hold my opinion, of course, but it plays havoc with my sense of why I hold it. Being right all the time can get pretty confusing sometimes.

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