No matter what side of the coin they fall, extremists are often dangerous. Radical fanatics of political or religious viewpoints, these individuals sometimes resort to violence to get their message across and have been responsible for many of the largest losses of life in recent history. Prevention is the key to stopping extremist violence – but how can scientists identify who is a risk?
Researchers from the University of Cambridge believe they have found an answer, finding that many extremists perform similarly (and poorly) in complex mental tasks. Their findings suggest that cognitive tests may be predictive of people at risk of radicalization. The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Setting out to identify possible links between extremists and mental ability, the researchers took 334 people from the US and asked them to complete a wide variety of cognitive and personality tests. Studies have looked into this previously, but never to this level of detail, with this study using 37 cognitive tasks and 22 personality surveys.
The personality surveys gave insight into each participants’ beliefs and traits, such as dogmatism (adamantly sticking to viewpoints and not changing) and conservatism, while the cognitive tasks judged their mental ability through tasks similar to those you may find in your average brain-training game.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found some interesting correlations. Those that subscribed to political, religious, nationalistic, and dogmatic beliefs shared similar psychological signatures, suggesting that performance in cognitive tasks may be directly linked to ideologies. Specifically, those that were high in conservatism and nationalism seemed to be far more cautious in their approach and had reduced strategic information processing, making them perform worse in more intricate mental tasks. Dogmatic participants were more impulsive and accumulated evidence slower, likely explaining why they refused to budge on their ideologies.
Members of these groups that were radicalized to the point of endorsing violence performed poorly across many different mental tasks, favoring impulsivity over strategy and having worse working memories.
The findings suggest that people with similar ideologies likely share similar cognitive and personality traits, particularly in extremists. It is still unclear whether these findings are a result of their views or whether certain people are predisposed to extremism, but the scientists allude to how low-level decision-making strategies likely lead into extreme ideologies.
If this is the case, it may be possible in the future to create profiles from cognitive performance to predict individuals that may become extremists, which would be of great use to law enforcement and mental health teams. Of course, this would require far more extensive research – such profiling could quickly devolve into a dystopian nightmare. Instead, such research could be used to understand how radicalization happens and prevent it before violence occurs, steering violent individuals in a more positive direction.