The Underlying Psychology of Political Radicalism

New research finds radicals are less able to recognize when they're wrong, even in a task having nothing to do with politics.
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A demonstrator questions the citizenship of President Barack Obama at an American Family Association-sponsored protest against taxes and economic stimulus spending on April 15th, 2009, in Santa Monica, California.

New research suggests getting at the roots of radicalization will require delving into cognitive traits that transcend politics.

Radicalization is surely one of the scariest words of the 21st century. After the 9/11 attacks, much effort was devoted to discovering how terrorist organizations convince people to die for their religion. More recently, angry demands for radical change have driven support for politicians with authoritarian tendencies, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban.

Who is susceptible to heeding the call of the demagogue? New research gives us a valuable clue. It finds people who hold radical political views are more certain about their beliefs, and more resistant to changing their minds—even on questions that are totally divorced from politics.

"Radicalism appears to reflect a cognitive style that transcends political inclinations," co-author Ray Dolan of University College, London said in announcing the results. "Our findings held true among participants with radical views at either end of the political spectrum."

In the journal Current Biology, Doland, Max Rollwage, and Stephen Fleming describe a study featuring 381 American adults recruited online. After completing surveys measuring political orientation, authoritarianism, and "dogmatic intolerance" (that is, the rigidity of one's political views), the participants turned to a politically neutral task.

They compared two "flickering patches" and reported which contained "a greater density of dots." They also noted their level of confidence in their judgment.

"More (politically) radical participants displayed less insight into the correctness of their choices, and reduced updating their confidence when presented with post-decision evidence," the researchers report.

Specifically, when presented with "bonus" information that provided evidence their initial guess was wrong, political moderates expressed lower confidence in their first response. Radicals did so as well, but to a far lesser extent. These results were replicated in a second study featuring 417 Americans.

Given the abstract nature of the task, participants were "unlikely to have a strong vested interest in the outcome of their decisions," the researchers point out. Nor were they swayed by prior knowledge, or the need to reaffirm previously stated beliefs.

Rather, the results clearly reflect a more basic way of processing information—one that makes changing minds extremely difficult. "More dogmatic people manifest a lowered capacity to discriminate between their correct and incorrect decisions," the researchers conclude.

Importantly, previous research has found these differences in what psychologists call "metacognition" are not related to intelligence. Rigidity of thought can be found in conventionally bright and not-so-bright people alike.

The researchers caution that this is far from the sole determinant of political radicalism. They point to numerous "motivational factors," ranging from the perception one is disrespected to the desire for thrill-seeking.

But this research suggests getting at the roots of radicalization will require going deeper, by delving into cognitive traits that transcend politics. A person who is reluctant to recognize and revise incorrect beliefs isn't likely to be lured away from the fringe.

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