Why radicals can't recognize when they're wrong

It's not just ostriches who stick their head in the sand.

Political argument
Image source: Shutterstock
  • Not only does everyone have personal experience with how difficult it can be to change people's minds, but there's also empirical research showing why this is the case.
  • A new study in Current Biology explains why some people seem to be constitutionally incapable of admitting they're wrong.
  • The study shows the underlying mechanism behind being bull-headed, and there may be some ways to get better at recognizing when you're wrong.

If you find yourself in an argument about politics, climate change, religion, or any number of conversation topics that are taboo at the Thanksgiving table, you've probably silent screamed to yourself, "Why won't this jerk change their mind? It seems so obvious!" Not only that, but it seems like the crazier position the other side has, the more obstinate they are that you're wrong, not them.

New research published in Current Biology on December 18, 2018, confirms this feeling: people with radical beliefs actually think differently than those without. Specifically, radicals have less metacognitive sensitivity than moderates.

Metacognition refers to the ability to be aware of and analyze one's own thinking. Metacognitive sensitivity is similar, but more specific: it refers to the ability to distinguish between one's correct and incorrect judgements. The new paper, titled "Metacognitive Failure as a Feature of Holding Radical Beliefs," shows that radicals have measurably less metacognitive sensitivity than moderates.

A radical experiment

First, the researchers developed a model of "radicalism." They distributed a series of validated questionnaires on political orientation, attitudes toward specific political issues, intolerance to opposing views, belief rigidity, and other domains. From these, they developed two factors that explained people's responses: dogmatism and authoritarianism, which, taken together, were considered to define a radical.

In this study, dogmatism referred to one's rigidity of belief and intolerance to opposing viewpoints, while authoritarianism referred to one's adherence to in-group authorities and norms and aggression towards those who did not adhere to those authorities and norms. It's important to note that people from both ends of the political spectrum could qualify as radicals based on these criteria, although people with rightwing politics tended to be more authoritarian, which replicates previous findings on the subject.

Based on this construct of radicalism, the researchers took a new sample, measured their radicalism, and presented them with a straightforward task. Study participants were shown two squares with flashing dots for about 750 milliseconds. Their job was to pick the square that had more dots. But the purpose of this task wasn't to see how perceptive participants were. It was to see how confident they were in their answers, how well they could measure their performance — that is, their metacognitive sensitivity.

After making their choice, participants were asked to rate how confident they were in their answers. In theory, when the number of dots in the two squares were similar (therefore making it harder to select the correct answer), then participants would rate their confidence lower. When their confidence ratings were lower, they would be more likely to have selected the wrong answer. This was true for moderates — high confidence ratings were associated with accuracy, low confidence ratings were associated with inaccuracy. But this was not true for radicals.

Photo credit: Anderson Mancini via Flickr

One might think that radicals would be consistently overconfident in their answers, but this wasn't necessarily the case. Instead, they simply could not track their performance; their confidence ratings failed to match whether they were correct or incorrect. In short, they were less able to observe and analyze their performance because they were less metacognitively sensitive.

To replicate and further test these results, the researchers tweaked the experiment a bit. Just as before, they presented participants with two squares full of flashing dots, one with more dots and one with less, and asked them to select the one with more dots. This time, though, the researchers showed the same set of flashing dots again after an answer had been selected but before the participants rated their confidence.

Being exposed to the dots a second time was new evidence. If the participants could consider and incorporate this evidence, then they would rate their incorrect and correct answers with even less or more confidence than before, respectively.

Again, moderates performed as expected. But radicals? They couldn't incorporate this new information, at least not when they were wrong. When the new evidence confirmed their answer, radicals rated their confidence in their answer as higher, just like moderates did. When the new evidence showed that they had selected incorrectly, radicals still had higher confidence ratings in their wrong answer than moderates.

Can we become better at metacognition?

"In times of increasing political polarization and entrenchment of opinion, the ability to reflect on our viewpoints may be crucial for a fruitful discourse," said Max Rollwage — the lead researcher on the study — in an interview with Tonic. "It is not yet clear whether reduced metacognition is the cause or consequence (or both) of radicalization, nevertheless it is easy to imagine that deficits in metacognition will contribute to the consolidation of radical beliefs."

Fortunately, metacognition is not fixed. It can be exercised like a muscle. In fact, a significant amount of research in education theory deals with how best to teach metacognition to students, as it can improve learning outcomes. It seems that simply being aware of the concept of metacognition can improve one's metacognitive ability. Meditation, too, has been shown to increase metacognition. If we can improve our ability to reflect on how we think, we might incidentally improve our national and global discussions about politics and policy, become better at recognizing when we're wrong, and — at the very least — improve conversation over the Thanksgiving table.

How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

Just how cold was the Ice Age? New study finds the temperature

Researchers figure out the average temperatures of the last ice age on Earth.


Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A new study analyzes fossil data to find the average temperatures during the last Ice Age.
  • This period of time, about 20,000 years ago, had the average temperature of about 46 degrees Fahrenheit (7.8 C).
  • The study has implications for understanding climate change.

Keep reading Show less

Best. Science. Fiction. Show. Ever.

"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.

Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
  • Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
  • For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
  • No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise changes your brain biology and protects your mental health

Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.

Mind & Brain

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.

Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Here's a 10-step plan to save our oceans

By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.