January 21, 2021

Extremists have trouble realizing they are wrong | Science

Extremists have trouble realizing they are wrong | Science

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

"We tried to clarify whether people who have radical political beliefs are generally too sure of their beliefs, or if there are differences in metacognition, which is the capacity we have to recognize when we are wrong," he explains. Steve Fleming, neuroscientist at University College London. To prove it, his team designed a study with almost 400 people, who then replicated with more than 400, to see if the people of the extreme left and extreme right are always more confident in their opinions or if the problem is that it is hard for them to see that They have screwed up.

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

In a second phase of the experiment, the participants were informed if 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 that they had made a mistake. That is to say, mistakes made them doubt their capacity. But the extremists, remarkably, did not lose so much confidence in spite of their mistakes. These results show that the most dogmatic people manifest a reduced ability to discriminate between their correct and incorrect decisions, conclude in the study, published in Current Biology.

In an experiment, the extremists did not lose as much confidence as the moderates when they informed them of their mistakes

"We found that people who have radical political beliefs have a worse metacognition than those with more moderate views, often have an erroneous certainty and are reluctant to change their beliefs in the face of the evidence," says Fleming. This metacognition of which Fleming speaks, to be able to think about the success of oneself, is strongly linked to the capacity to incorporate new evidence after a decision, which allows to revert from incorrect choices.

For this neuroscientist, the result is very striking since a table with points is not something that these people can feel especially involved. If it is harder to see their failures in something like this, it is natural that this problem is multiplied in more personal or ideological issues. In addition, they consider that this cognitive ballast of the most radical is not only given in politics, as the links that arise between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism"We believe that the cognitive mechanisms that support radical beliefs can 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 the most radical opinions against genetically modified foods are associated with less knowledge about this technology but with greater confidence in their own opinion.

The mental rigidity of Brexit

In recent times, various studies have shown that political extremists have a greater mental rigidity that prevents them from recognizing other approaches, recognizing their own weaknesses or accepting changes. For example, a work of researchers at the University of Cambridge with voters in the referendum on Brexit showed that those who had more cognitive difficulties to adapt to a change of category in a test were more likely to be authoritarian, nationalist, conservative and vote in favor of leaving the European Union. Another study conducted in the USA indicated that the feeling of superiority over one's own ideology (that is, believing that one's position is more correct than another's) was a good indicator of ideological extremism. Of course, both people on the extreme left and those on the extreme right, equally, were more convinced that they were right than the rest.

Those who had more cognitive difficulties to adapt to a change of category were more likely to vote in favor of Brexit

Jose Manuel Sabucedo, professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, worked on this same idea to know whether believing in the possession of 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 intervening on those who believe in the right and the obligation to impose it on others, "explains Sabucedo.

Sabucedo considers that 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 do not share my way of seeing things, it is because you lack information, lack analytical capacity or you are biased by your ideology," says Sabucedo, president of the Spanish Scientific Society of Social Psychology. This phenomenon has a danger, the professor points out, and that is that it can lead someone to force them to see the truth to others "even in good faith".

However, this social psychologist considers that Fleming's study of metacognition has a limited effect. "It's interesting, but they leave out the importance of context: in times like this, when radicalisms and extremisms arise, we can not say that it is due to that cognitive problem," says Sabucedo. He adds: "There are people with those tendencies that are activated to become more extremist and people who are also active and who do not have them". "These times of uncertainty generate anxiety and citizens seek an explanation, and certain groups appear to offer a simple explanation, such as that the fault lies with immigration, which serves to reduce this anxiety", summarizes Sabucedo, who has spent his entire career studying the authoritarianisms from the psychosocial perspective.

"We discovered that believing in the possession of the truth was a good way of predicting extremist attitudes, which allows us to intervene," Sabucedo explains.

In addition, from the point of view of Sabucedo there is one more fault in the study: that of the correlation between that cognitive ballast shown by the 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 that it could predispose people to develop radical beliefs, but the opposite is also plausible," says the neuroscientist, and that is why he will continue to study it in that direction. Fleming explains that perhaps the capacity to reflect on our decisions or beliefs diminishes when surrounded by other people with radical points of view.


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