Straddling the Fence of Pathological Belief

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What makes a belief pathological? In a previous post, I argued that cognitive dimensions of belief like preoccupation and unwarranted conviction can be used to outline a pathological continuum of belief where pathology is defined by an increasing association with subjective distress, social conflict, and a potential for violent behavior. In other words, our beliefs often get us into trouble when we spend too much time obsessing over them and holding them too passionately. This is especially true when we’re talking not only about factual beliefs, but ideological beliefs that include related values (beliefs about what’s important to us) and morals (beliefs about what we think is “right” or “wrong”).

In addition to thinking about pathological belief as a continuum, it can also be conceptualized categorically as consisting of five stages of ideological commitment. Like colors on the visible light spectrum, these stages can be usefully distinguished from one another while also having blurry boundaries and a certain degree of overlap between them.


Having previously discussed “nonbelievers” who don’t endorse a given ideology, this post will discuss the second stage of ideological commitment: the “fence-sitter.”

The term “fence-sitter” refers to someone who isn’t yet committed to a particular ideological belief, but has developed a growing mistrust of mainstream accounts so that counter-narratives have increasing appeal. Unlike nonbelievers, fence-sitters are less inclined to utilize the “Holy Trinity of Truth Detection” which includes cognitive flexibility, intellectual humility, and analytical thinking. As a result, they often find themselves steered by confirmation bias when “just asking questions,” “looking for answers,” and “doing their own research” that guides them towards information that validates their mistrust and away from that which contradicts it.

Once fence-sitters venture “down the rabbit hole” in search of counter-narratives, they become especially vulnerable to misinformation and deliberate disinformation—like conspiracy theories—that are designed to exploit their mistrust of authoritative sources of information. Wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of two opposing ideologies, the more time and energy a fence-sitter invests in the new system of ideological beliefs, the stronger their commitment to that ideology often becomes.

The Low-Hanging Fruit of Intervention

On a more optimistic note, fence-sitters can just as easily drift or be drawn back to mainstream narratives and ideologies depending on circumstances. Sometimes they simply lose interest in an ideological belief. Other times, they “see the light” and are able to climb back out of the rabbit hole.

From an interventionist perspective, fence-sitters represent the “low-hanging fruit” of the pathological belief continuum. If help-seeking, willing to change, or at least open to discussion, psychotherapeutic strategies such as motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy can help fence-sitters examine evidence that challenges their beliefs.

However, the success of such interventions depends on two factors. The first is the ability to develop a therapeutic alliance. Next, both trusted and mistrusted sources of information—which are likely to differ from those of a therapist—must be mapped out to pave the way for a dialogue that fosters an evidence-based lessening of ideological commitment and a possible change in ideological belief.

For more on pathological belief and the 5 Stages of Ideological Commitment:

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