New study of Cambridge University maps psychological signature of extremists

Aditi Khanna
·4-min read

London, Feb 22 (PTI) A new University of Cambridge study on Monday revealed that psychological traits such as memory, impulsivity and unwillingness to change one’s mind may have a strong connection with extremist views.

The mental characteristics associated with extremist views include poorer working memory and slower “perceptual strategies” – the unconscious processing of changing stimuli, such as shape and colour – as well as tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation seeking.

The findings, published in the journal ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B’, also map the psychological signatures that underpin fierce political conservatism as well as “dogmatism”, or people who have a fixed worldview and are resistant to evidence.

“Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalised or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right,” said Dr Leor Zmigrod, lead author from Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology.

“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,” she said.

The research suggests that a particular mix of personality traits and types of unconscious cognition – the ways our brain takes in basic information – is a strong predictor for extremist views across a range of beliefs, including nationalism and religious fervour.

“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,” explains Dr Zmigrod.

Her research is published as part of a special issue of the Royal Society journal dedicated to “the political brain” compiled and co-edited by Zmigrod, who recently won the Women of the Future Science award.

Psychologists found that conservatism is linked to cognitive “caution”: slow-and-accurate unconscious decision-making, compared to the fast-and-imprecise “perceptual strategies” found in more liberal minds.

Brains of more dogmatic people are slower to process perceptual evidence, but they are more impulsive personality-wise. The mental signature for extremism across the board is a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge say that, while still in early stages, this research could help to better identify and support people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.

Approaches to radicalisation policy mainly rely on basic demographic information such as age, race and gender. By adding cognitive and personality assessments, the psychologists created a statistical model that is between four and 15 times more powerful at predicting ideological worldviews than demographics alone.

The new study is the latest in a series by Zmigrod investigating the relationship between ideology and cognition.

She has previously published findings on links between cognitive “inflexibility”.

A 2019 study by Zmigrod showed that this cognitive inflexibility is found in those with extreme attitudes on both the far right and far left of the political divide.

The latest research builds on work from Stanford University in which hundreds of study participants performed 37 different cognitive tasks and took 22 different personality surveys in 2016 and 2017.

Zmigrod and colleagues, including Cambridge University psychologist Professor Trevor Robbins, conducted a series of follow-up tests in 2018 on 334 of the original participants, using a further 16 surveys to determine attitudes and strength of feeling towards various ideologies.

Study participants were all from the US, 49.4 per cent were female, and ages ranged from 22-63. Part of the study used tests of the “executive functions” that help us to plan, organise and execute tasks, such as restacking coloured disks to match guidelines, and keeping a series of categorised words in mind as new ones are added.

Researchers took the results of the in-depth, self-reported personality tests and boiled them down to 12 key factors ranging from goal-directedness and emotional control to financial risk-taking. The examination of social and political attitudes took in a host of ideological positions including patriotism, religiosity and levels of authoritarianism on the left and right.

The Cambridge University team used data modeling techniques such as Bayesian analyses to extract correlations. They then measured the extent to which blends of cognition and personality could help predict ideological attitudes. PTI AK CPS