The Neuropolitics of Extremism

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New research may shed light on political polarization—and how we could protect against the incitement of violence.

Why are some people so much more polar, dogmatic, and radical in their beliefs than others—sometimes violently so?

Answering that question falls squarely within the scope of “political neuroscience,” an emerging new field dealing with the relationship between politics and the brain that was highlighted in a special issue of a journal last month. 

Also called “neuropolitics,” “neuropsychology,” “biopolitics,” and sometimes considered part of “political psychology,” the field looks to marry modern neuroscience and brain imaging with cognitive psychology and big data to shed light on how people vote, why they behave the way they do in public and online, and why some people just want to burn it all down.

(As an aside, when a discipline has several different names and even the people who work in the area can’t agree on what to call it, you know it’s new.) 

“Political neuroscience is a wonderfully young field, still in its infancy,” said University of Cambridge psychologist Leor Zmigrod in an email. Zmigrod was one of two editors of the collection of 18 papers that formed the special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, a prestigious academic journal that traces its lineage back to the birth of scientific publishing in fire- and plague-ravaged 17th century London. 

Zmigrod was also the first author of one of the 18 studies, which looked to uncover the neurobiological basis for dogmatic and extremist beliefs. 

The results may not be what you expected. 

No such thing as a conservative or liberal brain

We all know people who cling strongly to their beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They can be tipped into outrage by merely hearing the views of others who don’t agree with them. 

Simple experience with such people shows their ideologies to be absolute, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. Dogmatic people often describe themselves that way as well, claiming they are “cut from liberal cloth” or “conservative to their core.” But the evidence Zmigrod and her colleagues collected in their paper suggests that isn’t the case at all. 

“There is no liberal center in the brain or a conservative region,” says Harvard psychiatrist Joshua Buckholtz, an expert in the field who knows Zmigrod professionally but was not involved in the new research. 

In their paper, Zmigrod and her colleagues mined a mountain of data collected from 334 U.S. adults who were given 37 separate cognitive tasks and 22 personality surveys to uncover the “psychological signals of political, nationalistic, religious, and dogmatic beliefs.”

This huge battery of tests is a far cry from the old Myers–Briggs knockoffs companies sometimes administer to employees during awkward team-building exercises. In fact this study involved so many tests they had to be spread out over the course of two weeks. The sheer scope of all that data made the study the first of its kind and required special statistical techniques such as drift-diffusion and Bayesian modeling to make sense of it. 

“Difficulty with strategic and complex cognition may nudge individuals to adhere to ideologies that simplify the world.”

What the data suggests is that extreme ideologies and dogmatic political beliefs are not the red- or blue-tinted things we imagine, but something born of the gray sinews of ambiguity in between—the readouts of more basic mental processes, like how people process information and make decisions about the world. The researchers found links between these basic mental processes, which are called cognitive primitives, and the kinds of ideologies that appealed to them.

“Individuals who were more ideologically extreme, and willing to endorse violence to protect their group, were more likely to struggle to complete complex cognitive tasks that require intricate mental steps,” Zmigrod says. “It may be that a difficulty with strategic and complex cognition may nudge individuals to adhere to ideologies that simplify the world into neat categories and clear prescriptions.”

At the same time, the new paper shows that these people compensate for their slow perceptual processing through impulsivity in decision making. 

“When someone says ‘I am X— to my core,’ what they’re actually saying is, ‘I have an extreme intolerance of ambiguity,’” Buckholtz says. Asked to comment on the work overall, he called the paper “beautiful.” 

The politics of the political mind

For her part, Zmigrod says she hopes the sheer amount of data will overcome the criticism that has hung over past work in the field. “Researchers in political psychology have sometimes been questioned regarding whether they are only testing ideas and theories that would shine a positive light on their own ideology,” she says. 

That problem of cherry-picking information to suit your own worldview would seem to be even more pronounced when you’re talking about non-expert readers. This is politics, after all. It’s easy to imagine how some people would react to reading titles like, “Toward a neuropsychology of political orientation: exploring ideology in patients with frontal and midbrain lesions,” another one of the 18 papers. The authors of that paper do state, “It may be worth noting that by exploring brain lesions we are not in any way suggesting that holding liberal or conservative attitudes is reflective of neural deficits or damage.” But that nuance could easily be lost in a knee-jerk, third-party headline or summary. 

There could also be a more nefarious “dual use” of this research. Could bad actors, for instance, having understood the neurobiology that makes some people more susceptible to misinformation, then exploit that knowledge to target those same people, even inciting them to violence?

Zmigrod says the methodological details are probably far too complex to be so easily co-opted. “It is highly unlikely that malicious agents could use this research in ways that are dangerous,” she says. “But we are always mindful of this question.”

As far as actual applications go, she was far more optimistic. If extreme ideologies are not hard-baked into our brains, and if there are psychological “signatures” of ideological predispositions and brain “fingerprints” of the risk for violent extremism, then together these basic neurological facts could help identify people who may be more susceptible to radicalization and suggest ways to protect them from it.

Social media platforms have been used to both radicalize people and incite violence around the world. Their algorithms determine what kinds of information we see in our social feeds and are constantly being tweaked. An article published just this week suggests a way to cut down on misinformation by guiding the attention of social media users to the accuracy of posts in their feed. So perhaps Zmigrod’s research can inspire new ways to systematically reduce the chances someone would be incited to violence based on something they read on social media.

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