People with extremist views tend to struggle with complex mental tasks, new study finds

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
  • Our ideologies are important because they shape the way we view the world
  • Until recently, it was not understood how such beliefs are linked to our cognitive anatomy
  • A new study shows that cognitive dispositions influence which ideologies we find attractive.

Ideologies play a crucial role in our everyday lives as they shape the way we behave as well as how we view the world.

Yet, until recently, the association between such ideologies and psychological traits was not fully understood.

A recent study showed that ideological attitudes run much deeper than previously thought – they are a reflection of cognitive traits. One of the findings the researchers regarded as significant related to the composition and thinking patterns of people with extremist minds. 

The ideologies of extremist individuals are so deeply rooted, according to researchers, that they can be identified in what they have defined as a "psychological signature".

“There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines,” explained first author Leor Zmigrod

“This psychological signature is novel and should inspire further research on the effect of dogmatism on perceptual decision-making processes,” Zmigrod and colleagues wrote in their paper.

Looking into how cognitive dispositions sculpt ideological attitudes 

The researchers recruited 334 participants from a previous study (where they had to perform "brain games" tests) and asked them to provide demographic information before they completed a series of questionnaires on their political, nationalistic, religious and dogmatic beliefs. 

The results from these ideological questionnaires were compared to the previous cognitive test results, which led researchers to an astonishing discovery:

“We found that individuals with extremist attitudes tended to perform poorly on complex mental tasks,” Zmigrod said.

“They struggled to complete psychological tests that require intricate mental steps.”

Extremists have poorer working memory

It was also found that specifically extremists with pro-group attitudes, like those who endorse violence against other groups, had poorer working memory (meaning they find it hard to grasp new information), slower perception strategies, and sensation-seeking tendencies. 

It was not only extremists but also people with other ideological views whose beliefs revealed their psychological signatures. 

Dogmatic thinkers were slow when it came to collecting evidence for decision-making tasks, but they had impulsive tendencies. Politically conservative individuals exercised caution when it came to perceptual decision-making and were uninclined to taking social risks. 

Contrarily, liberal thinkers were less cautious in undertaking cognitive tasks and were more open to adopting less precise decision-making strategies.

“Our research shows our brains hold clues – subtle metaphors, perhaps – for the ideologies we choose to live by and the beliefs we rigidly stick to,” Zmigrod stated.

“If our mind tends to react to stimuli with caution, it may also be attracted by cautious and conservative ideologies. If we struggle to process and plan complex action sequences, we may be drawn to more extreme ideologies that simplify the world and our role within it.”

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
32% - 9432 votes
68% - 19959 votes