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Scientists Map Psychological Signature of People with Extremist Tendencies

Scientists Map Psychological Signature of People with Extremist Tendencies

Wednesday, 24 February, 2021 - 05:30
Bikes are seen outside Cambridge University, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Cambridge, Britain, April 1, 2020. (Reuters)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have mapped an underlying "psychological signature" for people who are predisposed to holding extreme social, political or religious attitudes, and support violence in the name of ideology.

Approaches to radicalization policy mainly rely on basic demographic information such as age, race and gender. By adding cognitive and personality assessments, the psychologists created a statistical model that is between four and fifteen times more powerful at predicting ideological worldviews than demographics alone. Scientists believe this model could be a psychological signature that helps identify people with extremist tendencies.

The researchers conducted a series of follow-up tests on 334 of the original participants, using a further 16 surveys to determine attitudes and strength of feeling towards various ideologies. They created a model including a mix of personality traits and mental characteristics such as poorer working memory and slower “perceptual strategies” - the unconscious processing of changing stimuli, such as shape and color - as well as tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation seeking. The results were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on February 22.

Psychologists found that conservatism is linked to cognitive “caution”: slow-and-accurate unconscious decision-making, compared to the fast-and-imprecise "perceptual strategies" found in more liberal minds.

They also found that brains of more dogmatic people are slower to process perceptual evidence, but they are more impulsive personality-wise.

Researchers say that, while still in early stages, this research could help to better identify and support people most vulnerable to radicalization across the political and religious spectrum.

“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. We are interested in the role that hidden cognitive functions play in sculpting ideological thinking. We think our study will be useful in this context,” said Dr. Leor Zmigrod, lead author from Cambridge's Department of Psychology in a report on the university's website.

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