I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a bit of polarity in the world right now when it comes to politics. As election season comes to its natural peak, the frenzy only seems to be increasing; those of us who spend time on social media can’t help but see the truth – it seems like everyone we know has pretty extreme views on politics… and most everything.
What we don’t always realize, though, it how that sort of thing affects our brains – and vice versa.
A new study out of the University College London sheds some insight not only on what attracts people to the fringes of beliefs, but what it means about their innate ability to evaluate whether or not they’re wrong.
It’s called metacognition, explains Steve Fleming, one of the study’s authors.
“It’s been known for some time not that in studies of people holding radical beliefs, that they tend to express higher confidence in their beliefs than others.
But it was unknown whether this was just a general sense of confidence in everything they believe, or whether it was reflective of a change in metacognition.”
The resulting study is mean to answer that question.
The researchers did their best to remove partisanship from the equation, presenting participants with a question that had an objective answer, rather than one rooted in personal values.
The volunteers were separated into two groups – 381 in the first, 417 in the second – and ask them to answer a survey that would determine how radical their political beliefs were. Afterward, the first group was asked to answer an objective question – which group of dots was bigger – and then rated how confident they were in their choice.
The more radical people’s opinions were, the less likely they were to believe they were wrong, regardless of being presented proof.
One group of dots was unquestionably bigger than the other, but those with radical political beliefs (on either end of the spectrum), were more likely to trust their own opinion than fact.
The second group of participants duplicated the results, leading researchers to conclude that metacognition plays a big role in shaping radical beliefs – they simply can’t question their own ideas in the way more moderate individuals can.
More research will need to be done before we know which came first, the chicken (metacognition) or the egg (radical beliefs).
Fleming and his team are still working on that, but in the meantime, feel their work has important applications – and implications, when it comes to helping people overcome that.
“Widening polarization about political, religious, and scientific issues threatens open societies, leading to entrenchment of beliefs, reduced mutual understanding, and a pervasive negativity surrounding the very idea of consensus.”
If we can understand it, maybe we can take a step back and be able to see the truth clearly once again.
And wouldn’t that be nice?