Both far left and far right extremists have trouble thinking about their own thinking

We’ve all had uncomfortable conversations with family that are political hardliners at Thanksgiving. If it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall, it’s not that you’re debating skills are bad.

Radical Political Beliefs

Turns out, research is showing that people with deeply held political views – and those of the fringes of the left or right wing movements – have a decreased ability to see when they are incorrect.

The University College London didn’t ask people political questions, though. The Independent explains their methods:

But the researchers were not testing their knowledge of politics. Instead, they used a simple game in which participants had to gauge which picture they were presented with contained more dots.

Their study was an attempt to measure “metacognition” – the term for a person’s ability to recognise when they are wrong.

They wanted to establish whether the dogmatic beliefs of political radicals were down to overconfidence in those specific opinions, or more general differences in metacognition.

Metacognition refers to the ability to reflect on our cognitive processes, which is the crux of this experiment. 

They created two groups from 400 people, using political surveys to identify left and right wing ideals, these people held radical views concerning authoritarianism and intolerance towards others.

They then asked them to look at two simple pictures and answer which picture had the most dots on it. Then they used cold hard cash to incentivize the participants to accurately rate their confidence in their decision.


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The Independent recounts the statement of one of the lead authors of the study:

“We found that people who hold radical political beliefs have worse metacognition than those with more moderate views,” said lead author and neuroscientist Dr Steve Fleming.

“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.”

After being proved wrong, the participants were shown another picture, which was meant to give them a hint to the correct answer.

The moderates were less sure of their decisions after being shown the additional picture. The hardliners doubled down. They repeated this experiment 2 times, which could bare repeating.

Political Bias

The Independent continues:

“We suspect that this is because the task is completely unrelated to politics – people may be even more unwilling to admit to being wrong if politics had come into play,” said PhD student Max Rollwage.

One conclusion they drew from their study, published in the journal Current Biologywas that the failure of metacognition held true across the political spectrum.

This is illuminating information, as it explains some of the absolutely craziness of our political climate right now, and why followers of Trump find it so hard to disagree with him or call him out when he welches on a promise (like how Mexico is going to pay for the precious wall).

Political bias

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump said at a rally in Sioux Center, Iowa as the audience laughed. “It’s, like, incredible.”

He could potentially be correct.

The parameters of this experiment didn’t test anything nearly as extreme as actual violence, but it’s the fact that many of us think, ‘He’s probably right’ in a dismayed horror that is so scary. 

But the study didn’t just focus on the right political hardliners – ones with hard left leaning ideals had this metacognition issue as well. This could serve as a cautionary test for those on the left (though it’s likely it will be ignored because well, the findings).





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