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Ideology and Psychology: Where Does Extremism Come From?

CJ Werleman reports on a Cambridge University study which could shed new light on why some people support violence in the name of political or religious beliefs

The storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Photo: PA Images

Ideology & PsychologyWhere Does Extremism Come From?

CJ Werleman reports on a Cambridge University study which could shed new light on why some people support violence in the name of political or religious beliefs

When right-wing Americans stormed the United States Capitol to overthrow the Government they believed had stolen the 2020 Presidential Election from Donald Trump, the entire world watched aghast – wondering how so many people could become so easily radicalised into violence on provable lies.

We now might have the answer, thanks to new research conducted by the University of Cambridge, which has mapped an underlying “psychological signature” for those predisposed to holding extremist views and supporting violence in the name of ideology, whether it be political, religious or otherwise.

“Although human existence is enveloped by ideologies, remarkably little is understood about the relationships between ideological attitudes and psychological traits,” observe the authors of the study. “Even less is known about how cognitive dispositions – individual differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt individuals’ ideological worldviews, proclivities for extremist beliefs and resistance (or receptivity) to evidence.”

Using an unprecedented number of cognitive tasks and personality surveys, along with data-driven analyses, the researchers discovered that a particular combination of personality traits and cognition – the way in which our brains perceive or process information – is a strong predictor for extremist views and dogmatism.

These traits include slower perceptual strategies (“the unconscious processing of changing stimuli, such as shape and colour”), poorer working memory and tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation seeking.

“This combination of traits – impulsivity in conjunction with slow and impaired accumulation of evidence from the decision environment – may result in the dogmatic tendency to discard evidence prematurely and to resist belief updating in light of new information,” the study states.

“Dogmatic participants were slower to accumulate evidence in speeded decision-making tasks but were also more impulsive and willing to take ethical risks.”

Certainly, new information and evidence matters not to the 70% of Republican voters who still believe Trump’s Big Lie – which preceded the more than 30,000 documented lies he told before it – given that they continue to dismiss the findings of a dozen re-counts and Republican Party election officials, along with the rulings of 100 state and federal courts, including the Trump-stacked Supreme Court.

The study also found that political conservatives tend to be more vulnerable to “dogmatism” and thus more resistant to evidence due to being more predisposed to “cognitive caution” – described as “slow-and-accurate unconscious decision-making”, compared to fast-and-imprecise perceptual strategies found in those who tend to align with liberal political views.

The findings suggest that right-wing voters, nationalists and those with authoritarian impulses can be identified by reduced strategic information processing, heightened response caution in perceptual decision-making paradigms and aversion to social risk-taking, which, as the authors note, is consistent with numerous other studies that have linked right-wing ideologies with reduced analytical thinking and cognitive flexibility.

In 2012, researchers found that “lower general intelligence in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology”, while a 1954 study found that those who hold extremist, right-wing views tend to be “intolerant of ambiguity” and having an “undue preference for symmetry, familiarity, definitiveness, and regularity; tendency toward black–white solutions, oversimplified dichotomising, unqualified either-or solutions, premature closure, perseveration and stereotypy”.

If that doesn’t sound like Trumpism or right-wing-populism in a nutshell, then I’m not sure what does, particularly with regards to its hostility towards immigrants and proclivity for empty-headed slogans – ‘Build the Wall’, ‘Lock Her Up’, ‘Stop the Steal’.

Dr Leor Zmigrod, one of the lead authors of the University of Cambridge study, found in earlier research that those who indicate strong attachment to a political party exhibit “mental rigidity”, relative to political moderates, and tend to see the world in black-and-white terms and “struggle with new and different perspectives”.

“The more inflexible mind may be especially susceptible to the clarity, certainty, and safety frequently offered by strong loyalty to collective ideologies,” Dr Zmigrod told a science-based journal in 2019.

She has also found links between cognitive “inflexibility” and pro-Brexit voters, observing that “belief in rigid distinctions between the nationalistic in-group and out-group has been a motivating force in citizen’s voting behaviour”, with more “flexible” cognitive styles related to less nationalistic identities and attitudes.

Her newly-published study found that the psychological profile of individuals who endorse extreme pro-group actions, including violence against out-groups – remembering that roughly 30% of Republican voters expressed support for the attack on the Capitol – included a “mix of the political conservatism signature and the dogmatism signature” which she and her co-authors believe offers “key insights for nuanced educational programmes aimed at fostering humility and social understanding”.

Specifically, traits that make individuals more intellectually humble and receptive to evidence offer a counter to toxic ideologies and extremist rhetoric.

“There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines,” says Dr Zmigrod. “Understanding this could help us to support those individuals vulnerable to extremism, and foster social understanding across ideological divides.”

The results of this study could not be more timely, given the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol took place only months after the Department of Homeland Security assessed right-wing extremists and white supremacists to be “the most persistent and lethal threat” to America, synching with an FBI warning that identified right-wing extremism to be a “more urgent” threat than violent jihadism.

More research into why and how certain individuals are predisposed to holding extremist political views, including support of violence in the name of ideology, is urgently needed.

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