Are certain people susceptible to extremism?

Is there a certain mindset that is more likely to be convinced by extremist arguments?
10 January 2023


Cartoon of a couple arguing



Chris - Now we've often talked on this program about fake news and its impact in various ways. You are very interested in who's susceptible to these sorts of messages. So is there a kind of classic type of victim? We were talking just now and you were helping us understand about golden retrievers having innate abilities to go and retrieve sticks and slippers and so on. So are there people who are born susceptible to these sorts of messages?


Leor - So what we've seen in the research that I've done in the research a lot of people have done as part of this new field called political neuroscience, which is using neuroscience techniques to study our political ideologies. What we find is that there are some traits that we can measure in the brain, in our cognition. Traits that we can measure that we might not even know that we have, that we might not be able to self-report on what we are, and we can use those traits to infer who is most susceptible to things like radicalization. One example that I found in my research is a trait called cognitive rigidity. So we measure cognitive rigidity by basically getting you to play all these kinds of brain games where you're moving shapes on a screen or you're responding to all sorts of challenges. Some might be numerical challenges, some might be linguistic and language games. And what we see is that people who cling on to first impressions and then never manage to change or to switch or to adapt, people who are cognitively rigid, who mentally tend to stick to their first guns and then never change, even in tasks as simple as Tetris-like games. The more rigid they are cognitively and psychologically, the more that they're also rigid in their politics and in their ideologies. So that's one kind of factor that makes us susceptible to becoming radicalized to any ideology.

Chris - So that could work both ways then, because if they're not radical, they're not gonna be very susceptible to being radicalized. But if they are a bit radical to start with, then it's very hard to shake them out of it.

Leor - That's a great point that there is a kind of this paradox of flexibility and rigidity, right? If you are too rigid, you'll never let any new ideas in. Uh, but if you're too flexible, you'll kind of sway with the wind, whatever the latest opinion is, that's the fashion that you'll take onto. So there is kind of this middle ground in order not to be either too persuadable or too dogmatic.

Chris - There's been some criticism recently of the program that the UK government set up called 'Prevent', which was the idea being that you try to stop people becoming seduced by terrorist messages and extremist ideologies, for example. And people were saying that this was flawed. If we've got people in the population though, who are very rigid in their thinking, we know they all exist, but if they're already terrorists, or they have inclinations to become terrorists, does this mean that we really can't, with all the best will in the world make a programme work that will will change their mind?

Leor - I don't think so because there is a difference between vulnerability, which is like a potential state, and actuality, what you actually end up doing. So even if we have a population and kind of a large range of people who might be susceptible to ideological extremism or to becoming radicalized, that doesn't necessarily mean that they will. And so finding out who is vulnerable and how we can best support them before they end up being exposed to radical ideology, I think that that's important.


Add a comment