Science

Extremists have trouble realizing they’re wrong.

Anyone who has discussed politics knows that it is almost impossible to convince someone that they are wrong, especially in ideological matters. But that possibility exists, even if it is small. However, when it comes to extremists, this option is almost nil. Given the growing actuality of radical political movements, new studies have appeared in recent years that have highlighted the overconfidence that more radicals have in their own opinion. Now, some scientists have wanted to find out if there is something else inside the most fanatical heads that prevents them from getting out of their dogmas, regardless of ideology, social pressure or ego.

“We were trying to clarify whether people who have radical political beliefs are generally too sure of their beliefs, or whether it’s about differences in metacognition, which is the ability we have to recognize when we’re wrong,” explains Steve Fleming, a neuroscientist at University College London. To prove it, his team designed a study with almost 400 people, which they then replicated with more than 400, to see if people on the extreme left and extreme right always feel more confident in their opinions or if the problem is that they have trouble seeing that they have screwed up.

The experiment was simple: the subjects are shown a series of pairs of squares with dots inside and they have to choose which of the two has more dots. And, subsequently, they must indicate how sure they are about their choice. In this first phase of the test, extremists and moderates were equally right and equally confident in their achievement when they were right. But when they had failed, the extremists were more confident that they had succeeded.

In a second phase of the experiment, participants were informed whether they had succeeded or failed in their response before moving on to the next. What the scientists observed is that the subjects lowered the level of confidence in their own judgment after knowing they had made a mistake. In other words, the mistakes made them doubt their ability. But the extremists, strikingly, did not lose so much confidence despite their mistakes. These results show that the most dogmatic people manifest a reduced ability to discriminate between their right and wrong decisions, they conclude in the study, published in Current Biology.

“We found that people with radical political beliefs have a worse metacognition than those with more moderate views. Often, they are wrongly certain and resist changing their beliefs in the face of evidence,” Fleming explains. This metacognition of which Fleming speaks, to be able to think about one’s own success, is strongly linked to the ability to incorporate new evidence after a decision, which allows reversal of wrong choices.

For this neuroscientist, the result is very striking since a table with points is not something that these people can feel especially involved with. If it is more difficult for them to see their faults in something like this, it is natural for this problem to multiply in more personal or ideological questions. Furthermore, they consider that this cognitive ballast of the more radicals is not only present in politics, as the links between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism would demonstrate: “We believe that the cognitive mechanisms that support radical beliefs may be the same between different domains, while the content of a specific belief probably depends on other factors such as education and exposure to different social groups,” says Fleming. A recent study, for example, shows that more radical opinions against genetically modified foods are associated with less knowledge about this technology but more confidence in their own opinion.

The mental rigidity of Brexit
In recent times, studies have shown that political extremists have greater mental rigidity that prevents them from recognizing other approaches, recognizing their own weaknesses, or accepting change. For example, a study by Cambridge University researchers with voters in the Brexit referendum showed that those who had more cognitive difficulties adapting to a category change in a test were more likely to be authoritarian, nationalistic, conservative and to vote in favour of leaving the European Union. Another study in the US pointed out that the feeling of superiority over one’s own ideology (i.e. believing that one’s position is more correct than another’s) was a good indicator of ideological extremism. But both extreme leftists and extreme right-wingers alike were more convinced that they were right than the rest.

José Manuel Sabucedo, professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, worked on the same idea to find out whether believing oneself in possession of the truth was a good way to predict political radicalism. “We discovered that the monopoly of truth is a good predictor of extremist attitudes, which allows us to intervene on those who believe in the right and the obligation to impose it on others”, explains Sabucedo.

Sabucedo believes this fits into the concept of naive realism, which is how it is defined when individuals believe that reality is as they perceive it. “And if you don’t share my way of seeing things, it’s because you lack information, you lack analytical capacity or you’re biased by your ideology,” says Sabucedo, president of the Spanish Scientific Society of Social Psychology. This phenomenon has a danger, points out the professor, and that is that it can lead someone to force others to see the truth “even in good faith”.

However, this social psychologist believes Fleming’s study of metacognition has a limited effect. “It’s interesting, but they leave out the importance of context. In times like these, when radicalism and extremism arise, we can’t say it’s because of that cognitive problem,” notes Sabucedo. And he adds: “There are people with these tendencies that are activated to become more extremists and people who are also activated and who don’t have them”. “These times of uncertainty generate anxiety and citizens look for an explanation. And certain groups appear to offer a simple explanation, such as that immigration is to blame, which serves to reduce that anxiety,” summarizes Sabucedo, who has spent his entire career studying authoritarianism from a psychosocial perspective.

Furthermore, from Sabucedo’s point of view, there is one more problem in the study: the correlation between the cognitive ballast shown by extremists and their tendency to radicalism. What is the cause and what is the effect? Fleming acknowledges that “it is not yet clear whether limited metacognition is the cause or consequence, or both, of radicalization. “We think it might predispose people to develop radical beliefs, but the opposite is also plausible,” says the neuroscientist, and so he will continue to study it in that direction. Fleming explains that perhaps the ability to reflect on our decisions or beliefs diminishes when surrounded by other people with radical views.

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