the cognitive paradox of a political hardliner

A new study shows that people with hardline political views are more confident in their decisions, no matter how minor, than moderates. But we still don’t know why...

rioter with smoke bomb

What if you were unable to tell right from wrong, not in a figurative way in which we could get into debates about what is considered morally right or wrong, but when it comes to very basic and clearly observable facts? Researchers tried to find out by presenting over a thousand randomly chosen subjects with pictures containing a certain number of dots. The task was to determine which picture had more dots and estimate the certainty of their decision over several hundred trials, including variations which gave subjects bonus images meant to nudge them towards the correct answer.

This all seems innocuous enough, right? Well, in a twist, before asking participants to complete their tasks, the researchers asked them to fill out surveys intended to measure their political views and charted how far left or right they leaned against their confidence estimations and the ability to reverse course when presented with new evidence. Not surprisingly, those with the most radical, hardcore beliefs tended to be notably more confident in their estimates and ignore additional evidence. In short, the was a strong correlation between believing you’re always right and having hardline political beliefs.

Now, there are two important things to keep in mind. First of all is that political hardliners aren’t completely delusional about their ability to be correct, they’re simply overestimating it compared to those with more moderate stances to a notable extent. Secondly, while popular science outlets will report that this study means that people with hardline political views don’t know when they’re wrong and leave it at that, the data shows a fairly difficult chicken and egg problem when it comes to explaining the causation behind the correlation.

The question is whether political extremists are overly confident about their correctness because they’re political extremists, or are they political extremists because they think they’re correct more often than they are, and therefore naturally lean towards extreme ideologies offering, and demanding, more certainty? Are they innately attracted to hardline views, do their experiences lead them to hardline stances, or is there a mix of the two? We don’t know, especially because people’s political beliefs can be quite fluid and they can find meaning in the same ideas and views for completely different reasons.

As they’re exposed to new ideas in different points in their lives, can and do rebel against their upbringing, and have both slow transitions in their viewpoints and radical transformations from traumatic or profound events. They can get swept up by angry movements then mellow out, or aimlessly search for something until it offers structure and purpose. They can join communes to find peace, love, mental clarity, and relaxation, then find themselves worshipping a leader who demands absolute fealty and is siccing his followers on his real and imagined enemies.

So, as much as we may want to generalize about the political views of extremists and hardliners from this study from the pop sci headlines that will inevitably follow, all it tells us is that by the time they’ve crossed the line into radical stances, they’re more confident in their opinions and decisions than their more moderate counterparts. Obviously, that makes conversations with them far more difficult and convincing them to change their minds an uphill battle. But it doesn’t give us any real insight into why they became this way. And it will take a lot more research to put these findings into proper context.

See: Rollwage, M., et al., (2018) Metacognitive Failure as a Feature of Those Holding Radical Beliefs, Current Biology, Vol. 28 No. 24, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.053

# science // political extremism / psychology / scientific research

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