As long as their beliefs were on either extreme end, people felt strongly that their views were the best. People with moderate opinions did not feel as strongly that being moderate was superior to taking an extreme position.
The new study adds a nuanced perspective on why political extremists often refuse to change their positions on issues, said Philip Fernbach, a cognitive scientist and consumer researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.
There are at least a dozen psychological processes that push people toward extreme positions, Fernbach said, including something called confirmation bias, which describes the way people tend to seek out evidence to support the views they already hold. It is likewise common for people to surround themselves with likeminded peers who strengthen each others’ beliefs.
In one of his own studies, published recently in Psychological Science, Fernbach also found that people tend to think they understand issues better than they actually do, a phenomenon known as the illusion of explanatory depth. When challenged to explain how policies work, people backed off from extreme opinions on those policies and became more moderate about them, probably because they realized that they knew less than they thought they did.
People exhibit the same kind of overconfidence in how everyday objects work, the team wrote, until they try to explain the mechanics of a toilet or combination lock and realize their understanding is fuzzier than they thought.
When it comes to politics, Fernbach said, a combination of factors contributes to impasses like the current gridlock in Washington. Politicians may be swayed by members of their party, who take extreme positions on issues they mistakenly think they understand.
Perhaps one way out is to encourage everyone to become better informed and more thoughtful about why they believe what they do.
“On both sides, we have to open our eyes a little about the fact that all of us are guilty about these things,” Fernbach said. “In my own political life, I make an effort to be more thoughtful about claims from the side I support.”
“These issues are complex, and there is no simple solution,” he added. “It is a super-difficult puzzle about how we can begin to fix this situation.”