Political extremists are ‘impulsive’ thrill-seekers, but mentally slower

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — From destructive protests throughout 2020, to the violent events in Washington on Jan. 6, it’s clear political unrest in America is reaching a boiling point. Psychologists are now asking what turns the civil discord common in partisan politics into extremist behavior. Researchers from the University of Cambridge say certain personalities are more likely to lead to extremism, regardless of their political leanings.

Their study, profiling the extremist personality, finds these individuals to be “impulsive” and likely to seek out thrills and risks. They also tend to be very cautious, but are mentally slower with poor memory skills. The findings could help identify people most prone to radicalization.

“There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines,” lead author Dr. Leor Zmigrod explains in a university release. “Understanding this could help us to support those individuals vulnerable to extremism, and foster social understanding across ideological divides.”

Extremism doesn’t have a political party

Researchers note that these character traits apply to those with far left or right social, political, or religious attitudes. These individuals are likely to support violence in the name of ideology. Overall, the study finds people who endorse “extreme pro-group action” – including ideologically-motivated violence against others – have a surprisingly consistent psychological profile.

Dr. Zmigrod’s team showed a combination of cognitive and emotional attributes predicts the endorsement of violence in support of a person’s ideological beliefs. Researchers examined 334 men and women between 22 and 63 years-old who completed a series of surveys.

The questionnaires asked each person about their attitudes and strength of feelings towards various political, nationalistic, and religious ideologies. Study authors say extremist views are fueled by a particular cocktail of traits and “unconscious cognition” — the way the brain absorbs basic information.

These characteristics include poorer working memory and slower perceptual strategies — the processing of changing stimuli such as shape and color. These individuals also have tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation seeking, the researchers explain.

People in different political wings make decisions differently

The study also discovered a link between conservatism and “caution,” or a slow-and-accurate process of unconscious decision-making. Fast-and-imprecise “perceptual strategies” on the other hand, tend to be more common among liberal thinkers.

More dogmatic people are slower to process perceptual evidence, but they are more impulsive. According to Zmigrod, the mental signature for extremism across the board is a blend of “conservative and dogmatic psychologies.”

Researchers add this information could help protect people most vulnerable to radicalization across the political and religious spectrums. Current techniques mainly rely on basic data such as age, race, and gender. Zmigrod’s team believes their personality profile is four to 15 times more accurate at identifying extremist traits.

“I’m interested in the role that hidden cognitive functions play in sculpting ideological thinking,” the study author from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology says.

“Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalized 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,” Dr. Zmigrod adds.

The dangers of giving in to dogma

Along with being more cautious people, the study finds those who lean more towards political conservatism and nationalism also have personalities linked to “temporal discounting.” This line of thought sees rewards losing value if they are delayed. Personality traits for conservatism and nationalism include greater goal-directedness, impulsivity, reward sensitivity, and reduced social risk-taking.

Looking at demographics alone can only predict who follows these ideologies less than eight percent of the time. When adding the psychological signature to that equation, study authors say it boosts the predictive power to 32.5 percent.

Dogmatism, or the tendency to view your own principles as incontrovertibly true, was linked to much greater changes in personality and thinking skills. Researchers say people who display this trait show reduced speed of perceptual evidence accumulation, reduced social risk-taking and agreeableness, and heightened impulsivity and ethical risk-taking characteristics.

Those with strong religious beliefs appear to be cognitively similar to conservatives, but with higher levels of agreeableness and risk perception. Adding the psychological signatures to demographics increased the predictive power for dogmatism from 1.53 percent to 23.6 percent, and religiosity from 2.9 percent to 23.4 percent.

How researchers identify an extremist mind

Part of the study involved tests of “executive functions” that help humans to plan, organize, and execute tasks. This included restacking colored disks to match guidelines, and keeping a series of categorized words in mind as new ones were added.

Additionally, results from various rapid decision-making tasks – switching between visual stimuli based on evolving instructions, for example – were fed into computational models to analyze perceptual processing. Researchers took the results of the in-depth, self-reported personality tests and boiled them down to 12 key factors ranging from goal-directedness and emotional control to financial risk-taking.

The examination of social and political attitudes took in a host of ideological positions including patriotism, religiosity, and levels of authoritarianism on the left and right.

The findings appear in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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