A study from the University of Cambridge has revealed interesting findings about how brain function may predict an individual's susceptibility to extremist views.
The study aimed to find the "psychological signatures" of these types of beliefs.
Although human existence is enveloped by ideologies, remarkably little is understood about the relationships between ideological attitudes and psychological traits. Even less is known about how cognitive dispositions—individual differences in how information is perceived and processed— sculpt individuals' ideological worldviews, proclivities for extremist beliefs and resistance (or receptivity) to evidence. Using an unprecedented number of cognitive tasks and personality surveys, along with data-driven analyses including drift-diffusion and Bayesian modelling, we uncovered the specific psychological signatures of political, nationalistic, religious and dogmatic beliefs.
Demographic details were recorded for each of the 334 participants, including details such as education level, income, gender, and age.
Participants then filled out an ideological questionnaire before moving on to performing the tasks themselves.
Tasks were designed to be emotionally and politically neutral, such as identifying shapes.
The results of the study showed a correlation between performance in these tasks and extremist political beliefs. The correlation was a stronger predictor of beliefs than the demographic data of the participants.
Conservatism and nationalism were related to greater caution in perceptual decision-making tasks and to reduced strategic information processing, while dogmatism was associated with slower evidence accumulation and impulsive tendencies. Religiosity was implicated in heightened agreeableness and risk perception. Extreme pro-group attitudes, including violence endorsement against outgroups, were linked to poorer working memory, slower perceptual strategies, and tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation-seeking—reflecting overlaps with the psychological profiles of conservatism and dogmatism.
While no clear conclusions can be drawn from a single, small study, it certainly opens up avenues for future research.
The full results and methodology can be viewed here.