Why is it that some people hold extreme political or religious attitudes? First, we need to understand the nature of such attitudes. Here are two quotes, which I think, emphasize it:
“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists.” (Bertrand Russell)
“Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought.“ (Clint Eastwood, p. 940).
5 Factors that Maintain Extreme Attitudes
Since extreme attitudes are so easy to hold, they are not that easy to change, and indeed, this is what psychological research shows. According to Fernbach and colleagues (2013), the following five factors maintain extreme attitudes in a self-reinforcing way:
- People are often unaware of their own ignorance
- People seek out information that supports their current preferences
- People process new information in biased ways that strengthen their current preferences
- People affiliate with other people who have similar preferences
- People assume that other people’s views are as extreme as their own
Across three studies, the authors found that extreme attitudes emerge from an illusion of understanding, which means that they are not always well-grounded in reality, and such attitudes are often based on only modest amounts of information.
How to change extreme attitudes
The researchers wanted to find out how to change such attitudes, or more specifically, how to make them more moderate and democratic.
They found that, when people are asked to generate (logical) mechanistic explanations for their attitudes, it leads to more moderate political positions since they confront their ignorance in this way.
The authors suggest that educating citizens via collective reflection may facilitate the process of becoming more moderate and democratic. In this way, people may be more willing to explore opposing views that may result in more moderate viewpoints.
They also emphasize that political extremism is hard to avoid, since a number of psychological factors maintain such attitudes, as listed above.
However, educating people, asking for logical explanations, may moderate people’s viewpoints by confronting their understanding of them and by stressing the various consequences of holding such attitudes.
So, there is hope when it comes to reducing or changing people’s extreme attitudes, even though it can be difficult due to the five self-reinforcing factors.
We know that holding extreme attitudes can have various negative consequences, and for this reason, it is our responsibility to make people think twice about their attitudes.