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Extremists Least Likely to Doubt Their Views

New research finds those who hold the most extreme views on hot-button issues are also the most convinced of the superiority of those beliefs.
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As America’s political polarization grows ever more intense, it sometimes seems that the people who are most convinced of the rightness of their opinions are those at the extremes.

Newly published research suggests that depressing equation is absolutely accurate.

A study that surveyed opinions on nine hot-button topics finds that “people endorsing the extreme viewpoints felt the most superior about their beliefs.” So reports a research team led by Vanderbilt University psychologist Kaitlin Toner.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, Toner and her colleagues report that, in line with previous research, there tends to be more ideological rigidity among conservatives. However, these researchers distinguish between dogmatism and the belief that one’s viewpoint on a specific issue is superior to others.

"Liberal viewpoints predicted greater belief superiority on government help for the needy and religion-based laws, whereas conservative views predicted greater belief superiority regarding voter identification and affirmative action."

They note that one can be ideologically flexible (say, hard-line on immigrant rights, but less so on taxes) and still strongly convinced of the rightness of those views. With that in mind, they examined attitudes toward individual issues, and found a strong link between extreme views on both the right and left and a strong conviction regarding their superiority.

Study participants—527 Americans recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—responded to a series of online questionnaires. First, they were presented with nine controversial political issues, including health care, abortion, and “how large of a role the government should play in helping people in need.”

For each topic, they were asked to indicate their attitude on either a four- or five-point scale (liberal to conservative). Participants were then asked “how much more correct their belief about that issue is compared with other people’s beliefs.” They responded on a five-point scale from “no more correct than other viewpoints” to “mine is the only correct view.”

Finally, they completed a separate assessment of dogmatism, in which they expressed their level of agreement with such statements as “anyone who is honestly and truly seeking the truth will end up believing what I believe.”

The researchers found a strong relationship between conservative viewpoints and that sort of dogmatism. But when they examined people’s positions on specific issues, a different picture emerged. “People at the extremes of the political spectrum felt most superior about their beliefs,” they report.

Specifically, "liberal viewpoints predicted greater belief superiority on government help for the needy and religion-based laws," they write, "whereas conservative views predicted greater belief superiority regarding voter identification and affirmative action."

“In addition, respondents who insisted that they had the only possible correct view (on a given issue) were split evenly in terms of whether they endorsed conservative or liberal viewpoints.”

Why would this be? “People at the extreme ends of ideological positions may be strongly motivated to maintain their viewpoints,” Toner and her colleagues write. “The fact that their views lie at the extremes makes it less likely that they will consider alternative perspectives.”

The researchers note they are not expressing any political views themselves, and concede that feeling superior about one’s belief can be “a reasonable or justified position based on objective evidence.” (See change, climate.)

On the other hand, it's fascinating to see that conservatives are particularly convinced that they're right about the importance of voter I.D. laws, in spite of the fact that there is nearly no evidence of the voter fraud such laws are supposed to address.

The bigger issue, of course, is that extremist positions tend to lack nuance, and they make compromise--an essential component of our political system--more difficult. So the news that people who hold them are also the hardest to budge can't be good.

If the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats wrote, perhaps it's because they're so strongly convinced of the superiority of their opinions.