People with extremist views less able to do complex mental tasks, according to science

Maggie Baska
·3-min read

People with extremist views are less able to do complex mental tasks because they see the world in a black and white way, according to research into extremism.

The study by the University of Cambridge found people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white, polarising terms and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps. It may be that they are drawn to extremist ideologies because they “simplify the world”, researchers said.

Dr Leor Zmigrod, the lead author and research fellow at Cambridge’s department of psychology, said the goal of the extremism study was to understand why particular individuals are more susceptible to radicalisation and extremist world-views.

“Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalised or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right,” Dr Zmigrod said.

“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.”

Statistic model could predict who is at risk of extremism

The research also suggests that a particular mix of personality traits and types of unconscious cognition – the ways the brain takes in basic information – could flag if a person is predisposed to extremist views. These include poorer working memory; tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation-seeking; and slower perceptual strategies, which is the unconscious processing of changing stimuli like colour or shape.

The researchers found this combination of cognitive and emotional attributes sculpts ideological world views like political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs. The study found approaches to radicalisation mainly rely on basic demographic information including age, race and gender.

But by adding in these cognitive and personality traits, the Cambridge team created a statistical model that is “between four and fifteen times more powerful” at predicting ideological world-views than demographics alone.

Dr Zmigrod explained: “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.”

Political conservatism and nationalism were related to “caution” in unconscious decision making.

People with these ideologies also displayed “temporal discounting” – when rewards are seen to lose value if delayed. Personality traits for conservatism and nationalism included greater goal-directedness, impulsivity, reward sensitivity and reduced social risk-taking.

Dogmatism was linked to the reduced speed of perceptual “evidence accumulation”, social risk-taking and agreeableness, but heightened impulsivity and ethical risk-taking.

People who endorsed ideologically-motivated violence against others had a “surprisingly” consistent profile. The extremist mind is cognitively cautious, has slower perceptual processing and weaker working memory. This combined with impulsive personality traits that seek sensation and risky experiences.

New study builds on previous research into radicalisation

The latest research, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, builds on work from Stanford University in which hundreds of participants performed 37 different cognitive tasks and took 22 different personality surveys in 2016 and 2017.

Dr Zmigrod and her colleagues at Cambridge University conducted a series of follow-up tests in 2018 on 334 of the original study’s participants, using further 16 surveys to determine attitudes and strength of feelings towards various ideologies.

Part of the study used tests of “executive functions” that helps people plan, organise and execute tasks. This could include remembering a series of words as new ones are added or restacking coloured disks to match guidelines.