|Political extremism may originate from an illusion of understanding. Self-reinforcing factors maintain this illusion.|
Why is it that some people hold extreme political attitudes? First, we need to understand the nature of such attitudes. Here are two quotes that emphasize it:
- "The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists." (Bertrand Russell) .
- "Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought." (Clint Eastwood, p. 940).
Five self-reinforcing factors that maintain extreme attitudes
If extreme attitudes are so easy to hold, then why are they not easy to change? The authors (Fernbach et al., 2013) highlight the following five self-reinforcing factors:
- People are often unaware of their own ignorance.
- People seek out information that supports their current preferences.
- People process new information in biased ways that strengthen their current preferences.
- People affiliate with other people who have similar preferences.
- People assume that other people’s views are as extreme as their own.
Across three studies, they found that these attitudes may emerge from an illusion of understanding, which means that they are not always well grounded, and often such attitudes are based on only modest amounts of information.
How to change extreme attitudes
The researchers (Fernbach et al., 2013) wanted to find out how to change such attitudes (how to make them more moderate and democratic). They found that, if people are asked to generate (logical) mechanistic explanations for their attitudes, it leads to more moderate political positions, since they confront their ignorance in this way.
The authors suggest that educating citizens (e.g., via collective deliberation) may facilitate the process of becoming more moderate and democratic. In this way, people may be more willing to explore opposing views that may result in more moderate viewpoints.
They also emphasize that political extremism is hard to avoid, since a number of psychological factors maintain such attitudes (as listed above). However, educating people (asking for mechanistic explanations) may moderate viewpoints by confronting the understanding of them (i.e., stressing the various consequences of holding such attitudes).
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