Natalie Grover, 22 Feb 2021
Cambridge University team say their findings could be used to spot people at risk from radicalisation
Our brains hold clues for the ideologies we choose to live by, according to research, which has suggested that people who espouse extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.
The study, built on previous research, included more than 330 US-based participants aged 22 to 63 who were exposed to a battery of tests – 37 neuropsychological tasks and 22 personality surveys – over the course of two weeks.
The tasks were engineered to be neutral, not emotional or political – they involved, for instance, memorising visual shapes. The researchers then used computational modelling to extract information from that data about the participant’s perception and learning, and their ability to engage in complex and strategic mental processing.
Overall, the researchers found that ideological attitudes mirrored cognitive decision-making, according to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.
“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.
She said another feature of people with tendencies towards extremism appeared to be that they were not good at regulating their emotions, meaning they were impulsive and tended to seek out emotionally evocative experiences. “And so that kind of helps us understand what kind of individual might be willing to go in and commit violence against innocent others.”
Participants who are prone to dogmatism – stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence – actually have a problem with processing evidence even at a perceptual level, the authors found.
“For example, when they’re asked to determine whether dots [as part of a neuropsychological task] are moving to the left or to the right, they just took longer to process that information and come to a decision,” Zmigrod said.
In some cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards the politically conservative tended to go for the slow and steady strategy, while political liberals took a slightly more fast and furious, less precise approach.
“It’s fascinating, because conservatism is almost a synonym for caution,” she said. “We’re seeing that – at the very basic neuropsychological level – individuals who are politically conservative … simply treat every stimuli that they encounter with caution.”
The “psychological signature” for extremism across the board was a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies, the researchers said.
The study, which looked at 16 different ideological orientations, could have profound implications for identifying and supporting people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.
“What we found is that demographics don’t explain a whole lot; they only explain roughly 8% of the variance,” said Zmigrod. “Whereas, actually, when we incorporate these cognitive and personality assessments as well, suddenly, our capacity to explain the variance of these ideological world-views jumps to 30% or 40%.”