Have you ever wondered what kinds of people become extremists? A recent study from the University of Cambridge examines decision-making strategies, personality traits, and ideological attitudes in people to identify relationships between the variables. This study, led by Dr. Leor Zmigrod from the university’s Department of Psychology, was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. on February 22, 2021.  

“I’m interested in the role that hidden cognitive functions play in sculpting ideological thinking,” explains Zmigrod. “Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalized or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right. We want to know why particular individuals are more susceptible.”

“By examining ‘hot’ emotional cognition alongside the ‘cold’ unconscious cognition of basic information processing we can see a psychological signature for those at risk of engaging with an ideology in an extreme way.”

This study utilizes research from Stanford University conducted between 2016 and 2017. In that study, hundreds of participants completed 22 personality surveys and performed 37 cognitive tasks. In 2018, Zmigrod and his team followed up on 334 of those participants. They used 16 surveys to determine “attitudes and strength of feeling towards various ideologies.”

Conservative people utilized slower, cautious, and more accurate unconscious decision making. In contrast, liberal people utilized “fast-and-imprecise” strategies to perceive situations. 

Dogmatic people, those with fixed views resistant to change, processed perceptual evidence slower than others, but they were also more impulsive. They had lower levels of agreeableness and were less likely to take social risks. However, they were more likely to take risks for ethical reasons. Religiosity was linked to high levels of agreeableness and risk perception.

Conservatism and nationalism were associated with cautious unconscious decision-making. They were also associated with reward sensitivity, increased goal-directedness, and reduced risk-taking socially.

ScienceDaily notes that most “approaches to radicalization policy mainly rely on basic demographic information such as age, race and gender.” However, when the researchers used psychological factors to predict dogmatism, religiosity, conservatism, and nationalism, instead of demographics, increased the accuracy of the prediction. With dogmatism, the accuracy increased from 1.53 per cent  to 23.6 per cent. With religiosity, this percentage increased from 2.9 per cent to 23.4 per cent and with conservatism and nationalism it increased from less than 8 per cent to 32.5 per cent.

Extremism was characterized by a mixture of dogmatic and conservative traits. These people were cautious decision makers but with impulsive and sensation-seeking personalities. They had weaker working memories and were slower at processing information. 

“Subtle difficulties with complex mental processing may subconsciously push people towards extreme doctrines that provide clearer, more defined explanations of the world, making them susceptible to toxic forms of dogmatic and authoritarian ideologies,” says Zmigrod.

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

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