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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Researchers uncover psychological signature of extremists

University of Cambridge study reveals slow memory, impulsiveness and thrill-seeking are ‘strong’ predictors of people with extreme views

People hold a vigil for the victims of a shooting by a far-right extremist in Hanau, Germany, and psychologists have mapped out the 'psychological signature' of the mind of an extremist. REUTERS/Christian Mang
People hold a vigil for the victims of a shooting by a far-right extremist in Hanau, Germany, and psychologists have mapped out the 'psychological signature' of the mind of an extremist. REUTERS/Christian Mang

Researchers have mapped an underlying "psychological signature" for people who are predisposed to holding extremist views.

A new study revealed that a particular mix of personality traits and unconscious cognition, the way our brains absorb basic information, is a strong predictor for extremist views across a range of beliefs.

These characteristics include poorer memory and slower "perceptual strategies" – the processing of changing stimuli, such as shape and colour – and tendencies towards impulsivity and thrill-seeking.

This combination of cognitive and emotional attributes predicts the endorsement of violence in support of a person's ideological "group", findings published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B show.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge say the research could help identify and support people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.

Approaches to radicalisation policy have focused mainly on demographic information such as age, race and gender.

Now, by adding cognitive and personality assessments, psychologists say they have created a statistical model that is between four and 15 times more powerful at predicting ideological views than demographics alone.

"I'm interested in the role that hidden cognitive functions play in sculpting ideological thinking," said Dr Leor Zmigrod, lead author from Cambridge's psychology department.

"Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalised or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right.

"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.

"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."

The study also mapped the psychological signatures that underpin strong political conservatism.

Researchers found that conservatism is linked to a cautious approach to decision-making, compared to the faster, more imprecise "perceptual strategies" found in minds that are more liberal.

People who are more dogmatic by nature are slower to process perceptual evidence but tend to have more impulsive personalities, the researchers found.

The mental signature for extremism across the board is a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychology, the study revealed.

It includes cognitively caution, slowness at perceptual processing, weaker working memory and impulsive personality traits drawn to sensation and risk.

"There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines,” Dr Zmigrod said.

“Understanding this could help us to support those individuals vulnerable to extremism and foster social understanding across ideological divides."

The research built on work from Stanford University in which hundreds of participants from the US performed 37 cognitive tasks and took 22 personality surveys in 2016 and 2017.

Dr Zmigrod’s team conducted follow-up tests in 2018 on 334 of the original participants, using another 16 surveys to determine attitudes and strength of feeling towards various ideologies.

The research is published as part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to "the political brain", compiled and co-edited by Dr Zmigrod.

Updated: February 22, 2021 04:08 PM

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