People with extreme political views ‘cannot tell when they are wrong’, study finds

Scientists used simple experiments to reveal radicals on left and right were unwilling to accept they had made incorrect decisions

By Josh Gabbatiss   |   Independent
People with radical political views, both on the left and the right, are less able to judge when they are incorrect, a study suggests.

Scientists at University College London found those on the political fringes tended to overestimate their certainty after getting questions wrong.

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

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.

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.

In their study, the scientists asked two groups of around 400 people to complete surveys measuring their political beliefs and attitudes towards alternative world views.

From these surveys they identified those at the extreme right and left ends of the spectrum.

These individuals were characterised by radical views concerning authoritarianism and intolerance towards others.

Participants were then asked to complete a simple task in which they looked at two pictures and judged which one had the most dots on it.

Afterwards they were asked to rate how confident they are in making their decisions, and the scientists used cash rewards to incentivise them to judge their confidence accurately.

“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.”

To test how participants reacted to being proved wrong, they were shown a bonus set of dots that should have nudged them towards the correct decision.

For moderates who had made the wrong decision the first time, being shown this bonus information made them less confident in their choice. Radicals, on the other hand, held onto their initial decision even after seeing evidence suggesting it was incorrect.

While the researchers were confident their results stood up to scrutiny, having replicated them in two sets of people, their task only explained some of the radicalism on show.

“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 Biology, was that the failure of metacognition held true across the political spectrum. 

They said this suggested radicalism was based on a way of thinking that “transcends political inclinations”.

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