Zeal Definition

The term zeal came into common usage in reference to a sect of 1st-century-c.E. religious fanatics who were uncompromising in their opposition to Roman rule. Some of them carried daggers under their cloaks and killed anyone who did not fully support their views. Such extremism brought reprisals that ultimately crushed their sect. Accordingly, zeal refers to extreme ideological conviction that belligerently insists on consensus, without regard for practical consequences.

ZealZeal is puzzling because it can be unreasonable and self-defeating. Just as the original Zealots’ aggressive fervor led to the annihilation of their sect, thousands of naively unprepared crusaders were killed from 1086 C.E. to 1270 C.E. in seemingly foolhardy campaigns to seize Jerusalem for their ideological cause. Their consensual zeal inflated them with a righteous euphoria that was insensitive not only to obstacles and dangers but also to their own atrocities.

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Zeal is an important social phenomenon to understand because although it sometimes animates devoted philanthropy, it often fuels militant religious and political conflicts that can have devastating social consequences. The first systematic investigation of zeal was reported a hundred years ago in William James’s classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James concluded, from dozens of interviews with religious converts, that moral and religious zeal helps people forget about their personal problems. At around the same time, Freud observed that his neurotic patients repressed taboo thoughts by rigidly focusing on other, extremely intense trains of thought. Thus, both classic theorists viewed zeal as a tool for coping with self-threatening thoughts and problems.

Research on Zeal

The horror of World War II spurred systematic research aimed at understanding zealous bigotry, nationalism, and fascism. Thousands of in-home interviews about respondents’ life experiences and zealous tendencies informed the conclusion that zeal arises from feelings of personal vulnerability. cross-sectional research supports the general conclusion. For example, during wars, political leaders tend toward black and white certainty in their speeches, dogmatic religious denominations flourish, and children’s books become more moralistic than usual. These findings are consistent with historians’ observations that religious movements tend to sprout during times of social insecurity and that religious fundamentalism and extremism are especially likely to foment under conditions of social turmoil and threat. (Accordingly, enthusiasm for the crusades spiked under conditions of unprecedented social and political insecurity.)

Laboratory research supports the conclusions from interview and cross-sectional research. Hundreds of studies, conducted by dozens of researchers in North America and Europe in the past 20 years, have found that people react with exaggerated zeal to experimental manipulations of experiential self-threats such as mortality salience, personal uncertainty, social rejection, loneliness, isolation, failure, inferiority, confusion, and exposure to people who violate their cherished ideals.

Such threats cause people to exaggerate pride and conviction in favor of their worldviews, countries, groups, causes, values, opinions, romantic relationships, and personal goals. Such threats also increase people’s willingness to fight for their more certain causes and to exaggerate social consensus for them.

Importantly, zeal reactions occur even in domains that are not related to the eliciting threats. Thus, zeal can be regarded as a generalized, compensatory response to poignant self-threats. Why do people turn to compensatory zeal when threatened? Just as James and Freud proposed, zeal insulates people from threatening thoughts. Laboratory experiments show that zealous expressions of worldviews, value ideals, personal convictions, or pride cause previously bothersome thoughts to recede from awareness. Moreover, even if repeatedly reminded of distressing thoughts after zeal expression, the distressing thoughts still feel less important, less urgent, and less pressing than they normally do. This means that zeal is not simply a form of distraction. It somehow makes distressing thoughts loom less large even when they are in focal awareness. These experimental findings are consistent with James’s early observation that religious zealots seem exceptionally able to cope with challenging circumstances and to joyfully tolerate severe hardship. (One mystic saint reputedly demonstrated piety by cheerfully licking the suppurating wounds of hospital patients.)

How Does Zeal Work?

Recent research is beginning to reveal how compensatory zeal alleviates distress. Whereas poignant self-threats activate a system in the brain that specializes in avoidance motivation and prevention of unwanted outcomes, zealous and angry thoughts activate a system in the brain that specializes in approach motivation and promotion of desired outcomes. When one system is active, stimuli and experiences relevant to the other system loom less large and seem less vital. Preliminary research indicates this may occur because of reciprocal inhibition of activity between brain areas that are centrally involved in approach processes (left frontal lobe) and those that are centrally involved in avoidance processes (right frontal lobe). Zeal may thus be an appealing response to threat because it effectively turns down activity in brain areas that process threatening stimuli.

Zealous Personalities and Cultures

Defensive zeal is most pronounced among individuals who (a) explicitly claim high self-esteem but who show evidence of low implicit self-esteem on assessments that bypass conscious awareness, (b) defensively avoid close personal relationships, or (c) have narcissistically inflated claims of superiority. These three personality tendencies are empirically related and share felt insecurity at the core. Thus, zeal can be seen as a defensive maneuver in which outwardly proud people engage when situational threats resonate with inner insecurities. Defensive zeal is also most prominent in cultures (e.g., Judaic, Christian, and Muslim) influenced by ancient Greek ideas that champion independent pursuit of ideal truth. Zeal is less evident in cultures influenced by Taoist and Confucian norms that promote yielding of confrontational opinions to dialectical perspective taking.


  1. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.
  2. Armstrong, K. (2000). The battle for God: A history of fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books.
  3. James, W. (1958). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Mentor. (Original work published 1902)
  4. McGregor, I., & Marigold, D. C. (2003). Defensive zeal and the uncertain self: What makes you so sure? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 838-852.
  5. McGregor, I., Nail, P. R., Marigold, D. C., & Kang, S.-J. (2005). Defensive pride and consensus: Strength in imaginary numbers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 978-996.