Ideologies can be classified in relation to each other according to the positions they take (whether implicitly or explicitly) on a number of fundamental philosophical questions. Positions taken by adherents to an ideology on any specific issue should then be understandable according to the positions adopted by the ideology on fundamental questions related to that issue, while ideological change could be understood as change in one’s position on one or more of these fundamental questions.

The precise content of these fundamental questions, and even how many of them there are, must itself remain an open empirical question. To begin with, we have proposed the following 13 questions allowing for any ideology to be locatable as a point within a hypothetical 13-dimensional space, defined by its position in relation to each of these 13 questions.

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When real-world ideologies are examined and located in this scale, not all combinations of answers to this set of questions will be equally prevalent. Within a given cultural context certain combinations of answers will prove more logically and emotionally coherent than others, the hope being that this model could explain how certain seemingly incompatible issue positions often cluster and coexist under particular ideological labels (for example, how the “pro-life” stance that motivates social conservatives to oppose abortion rights tends to correlate with support for capital punishment). It also allows us to track the co-evolution of ideological systems, as each vies to form and occupy a particular space in part by defining itself against others according to their positions on certain key questions or representative issues.

Coherence is thereby depicted in this model as a type of equilibrium: a state in which forces are balanced such that it takes a minimal input of energy for the system to remain stable. The theory being that it takes the mental equivalent of energy to maintain an incoherent belief system; it takes less energy to maintain a coherent one. This process could be said to parallel patterns found in nature: just as water that falls on a landscape pools into basins, so too do ideologies gravitate toward patterns that are stable in a given social or cultural landscape.

In an ideological landscape, points of equilibrium constitute basins of attraction, where particularly powerful or attractive ideologies, defined by their coherence and similar in their deep assumptions, are likely to cluster. Small changes to one’s position on individual questions are difficult to the extent that they interact incoherently with existing positions on other questions thereby pushing the system away from equilibrium (explaining resistance to ideological change in the face of new information). That is, unless they are balanced by larger changes to positions on other questions, pushing the system across a tipping point that shifts it into a new equilibrium (presenting as a kind of conversion experience).

The dynamics of transition between basins of attraction explains both the “stickiness” of ideology in the face of challenge, and the apparent rapidity of ideological change when change does occur. In other words, the state-space approach gives us a means to model the effects of path dependency. How an ideology changes depends significantly on where it starts from; the initial configuration of beliefs and assumptions constrains its future possibilities. Some pathways of change will be coherent and therefore plausible, others less so. Pathways will also include key junctures where small changes in belief start a cascade of shifts that opens up new and alternative routes of change. In that event, ideological change can be dramatic and happen very quickly. A state-space model can capture the processes underlying such nonlinear change, allowing us to better understand the causes of rapid change from one ideological basin of attraction to another.

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