Here’s a scientific explanation to our polarisation debate

Study finds that those with radical beliefs, left or right, overestimate their ability to arrive at correct answers and display a generic resistance towards revising mistakes

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 18 December 2018
Credit: Getty Images

As the world is increasingly shifting towards the far-right end of the political spectrum, with far-right governments gaining favour in Europe, America, Brazil and India among others, a new study sheds light on the personality traits of those who hold radical political views.

Scientists at University College London used a simple test to discern confidence bias (a tendency to publicly espouse higher confidence) and metacognitive sensitivity (insight into the correctness of one’s beliefs) among those who hold radical political beliefs and moderate ones. Their findings suggest that those with radical beliefs, both on the left and right ends of the political spectrum, overestimated their ability to arrive at correct answers and display a generic resistance towards revising mistakes.  

The test involved two sets of pictures and the participants were asked to judge which one contained more dots. People with more radical beliefs performed similarly on the task as compared to moderates. However, the researchers then introduced a bonus set of dots to observe how participants reacted when they were proved wrong. Findings show that moderates displayed metacognitive sensitivity in this stage and were less confident in their choice.

However, radicals did not backtrack on their initial decision even after seeing evidence suggesting it was incorrect. “We found that people who hold radical political beliefs have worse metacognition than those with more moderate views. 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," says lead author Dr Steve Fleming (Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology) in a press note.

At the beginning of the study, a survey was conducted among 381 people to gauge their views towards specific political issues, intolerance and authoritarianism, their political orientation, voting behavior and belief rigidity. The same was repeated in the second experiment on 417 people. From these surveys, the researchers identified those at the extreme right and left ends of the spectrum.

“The differences in metacognition between radicals and moderates were robust and replicated across two data sets, but this self-knowledge ability only explained a limited amount of the variance in radicalism. We suspect that this is because the task (of identifying dots) is completely unrelated to politics — people may be even more unwilling to admit to being wrong if politics had come into play," says Max Rollwage, one of the authors of the paper and PhD student (Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry & Ageing Research).

The study, published in Current Biology, further highlights, “A generic resistance to recognising and revising incorrect beliefs as a potential driver of radicalisation”. It says that both the far left and far right of the political spectrum hold similarly intolerant and rigid beliefs. They explain the results in a context where people are motivated to maintain their current beliefs in order to sustain a positive (and consistent) self-image.

Our results suggest a potential explanation for why it is notoriously difficult to change extreme beliefs by what would appear to be the simple expediency of confronting people with evidence that contradicts these beliefs, says the study. It concludes by noting: “It is possible that impairments in metacognition may constitute a general feature of radicalism about political, religious, and scientific issues."

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