People With Extreme Political Views Have 'Misplaced Certainty When They're Actually Wrong,' Study Finds

People in the United States, and indeed in many other countries around the world, are becoming increasingly politically polarized, and not surprisingly, many are turning to the extremes of both the left and right.

When debates take place between those on opposite sides of the political spectrum, it is often the case that neither side wants to admit when they are wrong.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) have investigated this phenomenon, and their findings suggest that those who hold radical views aren't as good as moderates at understanding when they are wrong, even when discussing topics that aren't related to politics.

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"We were trying to clarify whether people who hold radical political beliefs are generally overconfident in their stated beliefs, or if it boils down to differences in metacognition, which is the ability we have to recognize when we might be wrong," Steve Fleming, lead author of the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, said in a statement.

The UCL team enrolled 381 people who were asked to complete a survey designed to assess their political beliefs as well as their views toward those whose beliefs differed. The results showed that people on the extremes of the political spectrum tended to have less tolerance for opposing views than people with moderate views and were also more likely to display certain tendencies, such as a preference for authoritarianism.

Then, the participants were asked to complete a perceptual task unrelated to politics in which the researchers gave them two sets of dots and they had to decide which one contained more. They also had to rate how confident they were in their choice, something they were incentivized to do with a monetary reward.

Both moderates and people with radical political views did just as well as each other on the task, although the researchers found that the latter group tended to overestimate their confidence in the accuracy of the answer they had given, even when they had made incorrect choices.

Next, the participants were given another task to assess how they processed new evidence. This was much like the previous task, although this time they were shown extra information about the correct answer in the form of another set of "bonus" dots just before they rated their confidence in their original answer.

The idea was that if they had initially made an incorrect choice, the "bonus" dots should have weakened the participants' confidence in their first answer. For moderates this was the case, but the effect on those with radical views was much weaker.

"We found that people who hold radical political beliefs have worse metacognition than those with more moderate views," Fleming said. "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."

The team also replicated their experiments with a different set of 417 people, achieving similar results, thus strengthening their findings.

"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," according to Max Rollwage, a University College London Ph.D. student and another author of the study.

"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," he said.

The researchers stress that previous studies have not found a relationship between metacognition and general intelligence, so the findings don't indicate that people with radical views have lower cognitive abilities than other people.

"An important point is that our findings held true among participants with radical views at either end of the political spectrum—radicalism appears to reflect a cognitive style that transcends political inclinations," said Ray Dolan, a co-author of the study.