Ideological Extremism and Metacognition

· March 8, 2019
What goes on in the minds of people with extremist views? Several studies have tried to discover whether radical attitudes are linked to only a certain type of ideas. Some results tell us that extremists may have radical opinions about almost every aspect of their lives.

Current political and social conflicts have forced scientists to shift their attention not only to what’s happening but also to how the brain of extremists works. Until now, we didn’t know whether those who back up ideological extremism do it only when it comes to ideas and opinions on very specific topics or if it’s something broader and more complex.

Recent studies show that it’s likely they don’t only do it on specific topics. Extremists could be radicals in almost every aspect of their lives, which raises even more questions. Is a personality trait linked to this type of behavior? And what is ideological extremism really hiding?

The research study we’re talking about today focused on people who agree with some type of ideological extremism and the relationship it has with their metacognition. But first, what exactly is metacognition? It’s a process through which people learn to reason. It requires constant reflection and is the knowledge one has about knowledge itself, about what one does and doesn’t know.

The experiment on ideological extremism

Neuroscientist Steve Fleming and his team at University College London carried out a study to measure a sample group’s ability to identify a flaw.

The goal was to see whether the individuals who held radical political views had developed dogmatic beliefs because they were confident in their opinions, or if, on the contrary, their views were the product of metacognition problems (their thoughts about their own way of thinking).

The participants responded to surveys that measured their beliefs and political ideologies with regard to alternative world views. From the survey results, researchers identified those whose points of view were absolutely radical. 

A person doing a test on ideological extremism.

Measuring metacognition

Once classified, the participants were asked to observe two images with small dots and determine which of the two had more dots.

Afterward, they were asked to value their confidence in their own answer. In fact, researchers paid them in cash to incentivize very precise answers.

Then, they told the participants which image had the most dots. The most radical individuals had trouble admitting that they weren’t right, even when faced with evidence that contradicted them.

“We found that people who hold radical political beliefs have worse metacognition than those with more moderate views.”

-Dr. Steve Fleming-

Reduced ability to accept new evidence

Dr. Fleming’s research results showed that radical people have a reduced ability to question the ideas they deem certain.

Those who support strong ideological extremism have a huge resistance to changing their beliefs in the face of evidence that contradicts them. Thus, the ability to reflect upon yourself and what you think is directly related to the ability to add new evidence to a pre-established belief in order to make more accurate decisions.

“They often have a misplaced certainty when they’re actually wrong about something, and are resistant to changing their beliefs in the face of evidence that proves them wrong.”

-Dr. Steve Fleming-

Two guys talking.

The heavy burden of a rigid mind

The results of this study are very interesting. Making decisions based on dots isn’t something too compelling; people don’t feel it’s “personal.” Even so, the most radical individuals defended their wrong answers, completely ignoring the evidence.

This invites all of us to reflect. This type of poor metacognition is a cognitive burden that extends to fields beyond politics. Other studies on the same subject seem to confirm that those who have cognitive difficulties when adapting to change are more likely to be authoritarian and nationalist. It seems that this translates into a feeling of superiority of their own ideology.

José Manuel Sabucedo, Social Psychology Professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, dedicated many years of his academic life to studying authoritarianism. He states that authoritarian attitudes are directly linked to the concept of naive realism: when people blindly believe that reality is just like they perceive it.

“The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object.”

-John Locke-