The Appeal Of Extremism

There was a meme going around on Facebook a couple of weeks back to the effect that conspiracy theories appeal especially to people who don’t understand how the government works. (It was phrased in a more pithy manner, but that was the gist.)

That insight was consistent with research on people attracted to various kinds of fundamentalism: religious, political or even nutritional. In a complicated world, there is something very attractive–even restful–about a world cleanly divided into spheres of black and white. This is good, that is bad. This is what God (or nature) demands, and that will send you down the road to hell (or kill you before your time).

No agonizing involved. Just respect the bright line–and try to get the government make your neighbors do likewise.

The attraction of those bright lines– good versus bad, right versus wrong, no shades of gray–goes a long way toward explaining the political figures who go from one extreme to the other. Those of us of a “certain age” still remember the members of the so-called intelligencia who were enamored of communism, then–after being “mugged by reality”–became just as devotedly and rigidly rightwing. These are folks who desperately need the clarity that comes with a very oversimplified view of reality.

The Guardian recently reported on a study confirming the nature of that appeal. It found that people who embrace extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

According to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers found that ideological attitudes “mirrored cognitive decision-making.”

A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

The researchers found that participants in the study who were prone to dogmatism – which they defined as “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” actually had problems with processing evidence even at a perceptual level.

For most people, through most of human history, life was comparatively simple. Not easy, certainly, but far less complicated than it can be in the environment we now inhabit. Constant changes in technology challenge us. Globalization and vastly improved methods of communication confront homogeneous communities with the radical diversity of the earth’s population. The Internet constantly highlights the vastness of human knowledge–and reminds each of us that our individual ability to understand the world is pretty limited.

And of course, we are constantly reminded of the threats we face: climate change, pollution, terrorism (foreign and domestic), assaults on democratic governance, evidence of multiple institutions that aren’t functioning properly…It’s all pretty daunting, and making sense of the connections and contradictions is more daunting still, even for people emotionally and intellectually able to deal with the degree of ambiguity and complexity involved.

That said, we also need to recognize that the inability to deal with complexity isn’t some sort of IQ test–it appears to be the result of an interplay between personality and intellect. We can’t simply shrug and attribute acceptance of QAnon and the like to stupidity, or substandard education. We desperately need to understand the nature of this inability to accept and process complexity–the reasons for some people’s resistance to life’s inescapable ambiguities.

We especially need to figure out how to address the seductive appeal of dangerous simplicities–including the siren calls of conspiracy theories.


  1. Perhaps we need to teach Ockham’s Razor in which (to put it simply) the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. This doesn’t involve surrendering to the either black-or-white option, but rather that however inventive, rationalization of outlandish and improbable theories is not constructive.

  2. Decades ago, a state legislator said we must avoid situational ethics and abide instead by absolutes. There were no gray areas – just blacks and whites. In a complicated world, I can understand the desire for simplistic solutions, but most of us grow to understand that life is not so simple. Nevertheless, so-called solutions that can fit on a bumper sticker are seductive.

    I used to be more optimistic and assume everyone is educable. Given enough information, I’ve always felt most folks will make sensible decisions most of the time. Donald Trump’s election and successful encouragement of his supporters to march on the Capitol and stop the acceptance of the Electoral College vote has caused me to re-think my assumption.

  3. The playwright, Arthur Miller, once explained the attraction of Communism to intellectuals in the 1930s by saying that at the time, there were two forward-looking philosophies, Capitalism and Communism. It was clear that Capitalism had failed, so Communism was the default choice – until the “show trials” convinced many of them that that philosophy was little more than a Potemkin Village. But their disillusionment was ignored by the hard-right Republicans such as Senator McCarthy.

  4. My morning began watching a CNN reporter in a rather lengthy one-on-one interview with the head of Proud Boys, Henry Enrique Tarrio. He has an extensive vocabulary and used every word in it; whether they applied to the issue or the question wasn’t a consideration. His self assurance would be enticing to those who make up the domestic terrorist groups in this country; they simply want a leader who will support their anger and mistrust at the government. He stated he is considering running for office; my guess is that the fact Qanon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene is sitting in the House of Representatives, he believes he will have supporters to vote for him. Unless he can be convicted of felony charges before he decides which office to run for. We learned over the past four years that the IQ level of too many “average” Americans is not far above the minimum. Those supporting Trump, Taylor Green and Tarrio don’t expect to fully understand what they are saying; they need them to do their thinking for them. And they are on TV a lot so they must be right.

    “We especially need to figure out how to address the seductive appeal of dangerous simplicities–including the siren calls of conspiracy theories.”

  5. This excerpt from today’s blog speaks to half of my high school class, a former FBI agent and most of my wife’s Texas family: “The researchers found that participants in the study who were prone to dogmatism – which they defined as “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” actually had problems with processing evidence even at a perceptual level.”

    Of course, all these folks mentioned above are regular church goers. Different denominations, but still buying into the black v. white operating system. The Texas people think they can get away with everything because, since they are Christians, they will be forgiven and saved. Okay.

  6. I don’t know who is on social media or not, but just about every Trump supporter is blaming Biden for higher gas prices and has for weeks.

    Every single time I point out that Oil & Gas are tradable commodities like stocks, they just laugh. Yesterday, I pointed out the weather debacle in Texas and the other Plain States which shut down refineries, but they called me a Biden apologist.

    And, I wouldn’t call them “extremists” at all. I was around several extremists in North Carolina last summer and they were convinced Antifa and BLM were going to raid their houses and set them on fire so they were stockpiling guns and ammo.

    From what I can tell, we have a sizable contingency of these elected officials in our statehouses and Capitol who qualify as extremists while the remainder believes Biden controls the gas prices.

    When I hear Biden call for unity with these whack jobs, I just shake my head. What could we possibly unify on other than increasing the military/IC/surveillance state?

    By the way, the FBI wants the same powers to deal with domestic terrorism as they do for foreign terrorists who don’t have the civil liberties of the US constitution.

    I mean think about it, right-wing extremism is domestic terrorism, and they had a rally at the Capitol with Trump but all the security power at the disposal of the US was nowhere to be found.

    The same thing happened in 9/11, and the outcome will be the same. Instead of looking solely at the failures of our expansive security state and defense mechanisms, the Fascists will get a larger budget and authority to trample even more of our liberties.

    Responding to Vernon yesterday, I’ll ask this, who is terrified of right-wing protestors and who is terrified of left-wing protestors?

    Like yesterday, I can remember the great democratic POTUS, Barack Obama, refusing to let the media cover the Native Americans getting trashed by hired and local Fascists with rubber bullets, fire hoses, etc. Amy Goodman with Democracy Now violated that order and was arrested.

    By the way, the Oligarchs financed the right-wing protests, “Stop the Steal” at the Capitol. Roger Stone was there being “protected” by Oath Keepers who left to invade the Capitol. It wasn’t a coincidence.

    However, when left-wing, pro-democracy, pro-justice, pro-civil rights, anti-police state, protestors were out this summer after the killing of George Floyd, how were they dealt with? The military was flying their spy planes overhead.

    Notice the difference?

    The focus is pro-democracy, anti-Fascists, or as the IC would say, “insurgents.”

  7. Although this research isn’t calling the fundamentalists and dogmatics stupid, we as readers must be careful not to make that leap. 1) There are different types of intelligence (Howard Gardner). Those who are not “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” have the gift of dealing with complexity. 2) Instead of trying to figure out what is “wrong with or missing,” in the B&W’s, we would be far more successful in selling progressive policy if we examined more carefully what is wrong with “us” that our progressive policies cause so many well-educated, non-dogmatic, non- or less-religious voters to stay home from the polls or to vote for the other side because they hate our policies.

  8. James Waterman Wise;
    “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

    Fascism usually has a religious slant to it!

    Fascism is a far-right form of government in which most of the country’s power is held by one ruler. Fascist governments are usually totalitarian and authoritarian one-party states.

    The GOP fancies itself as part of a future fascist state. Far right denotes the religious portion of fascism, and evangelical wing of the GOP which really embodies most of it, seems to need that sort of devotion from their followers.

    From what I can see, especially from “so-called Christian” relatives who are involved in this sort of cultish belief, they look at this is bringing about the end times as they call it. There is also a Judeo element to some of this, where the end times will bring about the coming of the Messiah on earth! And, there has been some coordination to that fact. As a matter of fact, the Islamic religion is almost identical in its calling for the day of reckoning or al-sā’ah.

    The fanatical elements embraced speeding up this process, are always individuals who claim to be patriotic, those who would die for their beliefs, unfortunately, these beliefs are not even scriptural in the Christian Scriptures or the Hebrew Scriptures or the specific Muslim holy books based on Scripture.

    Most of it is fear-based, and therefore, you can seek your reward by resisting what you are TOLD is satanic!

    But, dying and going to heaven if you’re good, or dying and going to hell if you’re bad, is not a scriptural teaching. Nor, is the rapture!

    So, ignorance can’t really be an excuse, because people choose to be ignorant! And this so-called time of enlightenment, we’ve gone backwards! Because of past misbehavior, there is a genuine fear of repercussions. A fear that is wrapped in the flag and the cross.

    So, they continuously search for their Pied Piper, the one to lead them to the promised land, and, when the fascist shows up wrapped in the flag carrying a Bible or any holy book, well, that’s just too hard to resist. Even if a person’s conscience tells them something is not right, the draw, the mob, is too hard to resist. To be part of a sea change, to make one’s self an ally of the supreme authority, is a desire stronger than life itself. Hence martyrdom!

    If the climate goes haywire, if people are starving, if there is constant internal conflict, if there is war between neighbors, animosity towards friends, turning on family, embracing conspiracy theories full view of empirical evidence to the contrary, and just plain willful ignorance, somehow, they will somehow end up with some sort of eternal reward.

    A quote from the book, “A Rationalist Encyclopedia” (Joseph McCabe 1948) states; No statement is more common in our literature than, religion is of peculiar value in connection with civilization” “and none is more massively discredited by the facts of history”

    Richard Nixon stated; ““There’s a lot of hypocrisy . . . and so forth in political life, It’s necessary in order to get into office and in order to retain office. As a candidate, you have to dissemble, you have to recognize that you can’t say what you think about an individual because you may have to use him or need him sometime in the future.”

    I kind of think we are way way way beyond “Tricky Dick” now, possibly to the point of no return! When you have a POTUS leading an insurrection on the capital, and then, a political party still groveling at his feet after defeat, and a threat to blowup the capital building with everyone inside including the current POTUS, this probably is not going to end well. After all, who would’ve foresaw a few short months ago, religious fanatical fascists attacking the capital building and taking control of it!

  9. One question, Jan, what do you call “progressive policies?”

    Would it be like progressives selling Medicare for All where 72% of our population supports, but neither political party will endorse?

    If we didn’t have Fox News and other fact-deprived media, the number would be 90%.

    How about the nearly 90% of the population demanding campaign finance reform while neither party addresses it?

    Biden could eliminate all student debt with the stroke of his pen but refuses because he doesn’t want to give the rich attending Harvard a break on their student debt. Really, how many young people require student loans to attend Harvard, or other Ivy League schools?

  10. I, too, have extended family devoted to far right political views. In a moment of privacy one on one, I asked for an example what bothered her most about our government. With teeth gritted and a tone of emotional anger, she said: “Wasteful spending on duplication of services.” The vitriol of her anger so thick, I backed off and just said: “I hear your point.” I discussed it later with her sister, my wife of 50 years. While I expressed frustration there seemed no way forward to have an informed discussion, I realize the distinction between appearance of duplication and desire for strategic redundancy to prepare for regional deficiency in an emergency to call on available resources from adjoining jurisdictions. The far right exclaims we do not need a belt when suspenders do the job. How that translates in current real life? … Why incur expense of winterizing control systems on the power grid when we have not needed it for years? Why spend tax dollars on pandemic preparedness when we do not need it? Why spend tax dollars on an underground secured facility near the Indianapolis airport to coordinate federal services when we have never had the need to use it? Why spend tax dollars on a duplicate (redundant) payroll system (I.e. DFAS) at a secure remote site when we do not need it?

    Do you think right now millions in Texas could answer that question right now? The losses in Texas for failure to invest in winterizing the grid is now expected to reach in excess of 20 billion, a number exponentially more than the cost of strategic prevention.

    There are extended periods of time to rest on simpler positions that deny complexity because it is politically convenient. Then when predictable emergencies occur, watch for who take convenient exits from accountability.

  11. I am the last person on Earth to talk about “silver bullets”, but I do wonder if public education focused on critical thinking we might have some relief from this.

    Also, the “simplicity” of extremist views applies similarly to the Far Left….

  12. I just deleted my comments again; faced the fact that trying to explain to Todd the meaning and necessity of unity within this government does not mean all will agree on all issues but will work together to find solutions.

    The FBI and other government agencies have ignored the dangers of domestic terrorism (extremism) for years; Trump brought them out from under their rocks and unified their various groups to carry out the insurrection on January 6th…which hasn’t ended yet. Those Republicans who supported the rioting terrorists, and those who aided them, are carrying on the insurrection from within the House and the Senate. Timothy McVey’s 168 dead in the domestic terrorist bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and the individual terrorist’s mass shooting victims are just as dead as the almost 3,000 dead from the foreign terrorist attack on 9/11. Just ask their families.

  13. I doubt if there are any new kinds of people being built. The kinds we see today I imagine have always been in the mix. So what’s different now?

    Here’s my little list:

    The explosion in human knowledge enabled by technology.

    The explosion in the number of humans.

    The explosion in global travel, information networks, markets, and awareness.

    The growth of social and entertainment media that tends to arrange us by like and unlike.

    In a word, the success of civilization. All good, right? Success is good, right? Well, we learn again that nothing is completely good or bad.

    One consequence is that we know much, much less individually than humans know collectively. The most informed person in the world however you choose to measure that knows a lot about something but obtained that by focusing on that thing at the expense of all other things. A consequence of that is that we have to rely on experts for, well, darn near everything. Everything is a collaboration. Everything starts with learning and consulting and questioning with an open mind.

    There’s the problem. That open mind thing. That slavery to others for everything but the one thing that we each chose as our expertise or the many things that we chose to know just a little about. That rubs authoritarian people the wrong way. They are supposed to be large and in charge. In fact, they are entitled to it.

    Can we adapt to the reality that we created in one lifetime?

    The jury is still deliberating on that.

  14. And Trump is going to be the major speaker at the Conservative convention next week, which appears set to play to the tune of “The election was stolen,” despite apparent evidence that it was actually the most valid one in many years.
    The research reported, here, is pretty clear, black and white, as it were.
    The problem for me is that if this is, indeed, the case, that “cognitive disposition” is the issue, understanding that that is what fuels extremist views is a long way from solving the problem.
    I would expect that one can not “teach” new cognitive dispositions.

  15. The Myers Briggs offers a lens for understanding the character types that most crave simplicity. The last of the 4 dual option areas of personality according to Jung is Judging vs Perceiving. Js are more comfortable after a decision has been made, while Ps prefer open options and are ready to shift when new information comes along. Js are about destination and Ps focus more on process. Js need order, structure, completed answers. That’s probably the most influential factor, but combine it with being an S, which is one of the second duel option pair (look it up if this interests you) and you have 46% of the population who are not very interested in digging below the surface; they prefer to be led, need simple answers, and want to be fed those answers without having to think much. I recommend reading “Please Understand Me” by Keirsey and Bates for an examination of the mystery of why people are the way they are, and how to deal with people motivated by different things.

  16. Jan Hise, thanks for reinforcing that point. I was 3/4 through Sheila’s post before I realized that researchers were making a big distinction.

    Also, my Facebook posts have a tendency to very wordy. From my point of view, almost nothing in life is black and white. Both sides and several people in the middle usually have valid viewpoints. I can see how trying to avoid that stress and complexity could push you to looking for simplification in extreme views.

    Working in IT, I think I was into my 40’s before I started to realize that some people just are not logical thinkers and they are not stupid, they just have different thought processes. That might be why they kept us geeks locked in the back office with very little user interaction.

  17. The Tunny-Fish and the Dolphin

    A Tunny-fish was chased by a Dolphin and splashed through the water at a great rate, but the Dolphin gradually gained upon him, and was just about to seize him when the force of his flight carried the Tunny on to a sandbank. In the heat of the chase the Dolphin followed him, and there they both lay out of the water, gasping for dear life.

    When the Tunny saw that his enemy was doomed like himself, he said, “I don’t mind having to die now: for I see that he who is the cause of my death is about to share the same fate.”
    Aesop’s Fables

    The fable would seem to capture the thinking of the Reactionary – Bible Thumping- Rambo types. They view Liberals chasing them out of their comfortable niches. They do not mind destroying the system as long as they bring the Libs down with them.

    The GOP Platform today has no ideas – The GOP has a rigorous no compromise ideology. They would prefer to believe Covid is Hoax, and proudly not wear a mask or social distance than succumb to Science even if it might mean death.

  18. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H.L. Mencken

    Bob cites Hoffer and we can add Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom”.

    I see we still have the “we must blame both sides” crew, although the number of crazy lefties have dwindled since the ’60s and only one side is engaged in trying to overthrow the government.
    As Sheila pointed out (as did Hoffer) the switch from far-left to far-right is easy and quick.

    I am also reminded of a good friend’s journey (I met her “after”). She was an attorney and changed careers to become a social worker. She is a very bright woman. She also became very religious. She explained it me plainly. Every aspect of her life was dictated by religion. She doesn’t have to worry about making decisions and especially about making mistakes.

    Of course, she still associated with me, so she wasn’t completely gone, but her reasoning says a lot.

    This said, suggestions about teaching critical thinking may not be of much use in these cases.

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