Fascinating: Psych study debunks myths about 'political extremists'

No, you can’t take an online quiz to check and see if you’re a political extremist. You can, however, read this pretty fascinating write-up of a psychological study that found some common similarities in the cognitive processes of people with strong political beliefs or affiliations.

The study, conducted at The College of New Jersey and published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that participants with firm personal beliefs – e.g. “political extremists,” as defined by the APS — were more resistant a common cognitive bias: Anchor bias.

[Psychological scientist Mark] Brandt and colleagues employed a commonly used anchoring task, in which participants are asked to make an estimate after being given an anchor number. For example, participants may be asked: “The distance between New York and San Francisco is greater than 2,000 miles. How far is it?”

Research has shown that the anchor number greatly influences participants’ estimates — that is, people work up or down from the number provided, making final guesses that are closer to the anchor. People who start with large anchor numbers end up with overly high estimates, and vice versa for people who start with small anchor numbers.

The task is politically neutral, and so it provides a tool for teasing apart the two competing characterizations of extremists. If political extremists take a relatively unthinking approach, then they’re likely to rely on heuristics in making decisions and their estimates will be close to the anchor number. If, however, extremists are especially thoughtful and confident decision makers, they should produce estimates that are farther away from the anchor.

“People who were ideologically more extreme and who reported more extreme attitudes on specific political issues produced estimates that were farther away from the anchors, suggesting greater resistance to the anchor bias,” the study’s write up read.

So, a person less “extreme” political beliefs who was offered the suggestion that “San Francisco is more than 2,000 miles away from New York” might say the two cities are 3,000 miles apart whereas someone with more confidence in their worldview might say the two cities were separated by a distance of 4,000 or 5,000 miles.

One of the takeaways from this study, according to one of its researchers, is that the common belief that those with “extreme” political views are more susceptible to suggestion than others is not well-founded. “These findings suggest that political extremists may make more confident judgments and are not necessarily unthinkingly relying on heuristics,” Brandt said.

This study is an interesting window into the psychology of people with strong political views, though the researchers’ decision to characterize those views as “extreme” is probably misleading.

That’s not the only good news for so-called “extremists” on either end of the political spectrum. According to researchers at Australia’s University of Sydney, a study of 29,000 European adults found that people with strong views are more likely to be healthier and exercise.

“Comparably, political centrists are couch potatoes, spending an hour less on exercise a week than those who hold stronger views, researchers found,” The Daily Mail reported. “They even warned that centrists and the politically uncommitted should be considered a ‘vulnerable group’ who should even consider developing stronger opinions to improve their health.”

The moral here is that everyone should find a political cause and get extreme about it. You’ll be a better person for it.

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