Understanding extreme views

Two peas in a pod

If the far-right and left seem hopelessly similar to you, perhaps it’s because they are. Typically, the political spectrum is illustrated as a straight line with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right, each ideology getting more extreme as it gets closer to the end of the spectrum. However, the horseshoe theory posits that this line is not straight at all, but rather the shape of a horseshoe with its farthest outliners bending in toward each other the more radical the ideology.

With the increasing number of violent clashes between the far-left and right, at UC Berkeley, in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and recently Portland, Oregon, we have been forced to accept the uncomfortable truth that the radical left and the radical right are much closer to each other than they are to the political center.

While their motivations are very different, both camps employ similar militant strategies, both share a deep disdain for the government and both are profoundly alienated from certain aspects of society and extremely critical of what they perceive as the moral degeneration of government institutions. They view themselves as the aggrieved parties and society as the conspiratorial force working to defeat their respective ideological aims.

The far left and the far right also resemble each other in their approach to reach their political goals. Both are disposed to censor their opponents, to deal harshly with enemies, and to use cruel strategies to ‘persuade’ society of the wisdom of their ideologies. They both suffer from dogmatism which has historically been conceptualized as closed-mindedness that is indicative of rigid, black-and-white thinking; for example, Rokeach described dogmatism in terms of “closed belief systems”, and is a hallmark of cognitive simplicity.

Psychological features of radicalism

Authoritarianism is a characteristic not only of the right. Left and right-wing radical political movements reveal striking similarities in their styles of political engagement, their reliance upon force, their disdain for democratic ideals and practices and their violations of civil liberties. With a persistent preference to trade in stereotypes and the possession of an inflexible psychological and political style, both far-left and far-right advocates are plagued by the tendency to view the world through unambiguous and limited terms.

Let’s examine a few of the ways in which the two extremist groups are similar.

Psychological distress

Studies have shown that adversity is a strong predicator for extreme political views. People who have experienced any kind of illness, loss or violence, are more prone to adopt radical ideologies as a substitute for lack of validation. This is supported by the significance-quest theory, which proposes that an important reason why people become radicalized is a quest for significance – the need to feel important and respected by a meaningful cause. For instance, people psychologically compensate for feelings of uncertainty and fear through strong ideological convictions.

Cognitive simplicity

Academics have found that extreme ideologies are characterized by a relatively simplistic, black-and-white perception of the world. Feelings of confusion and inadequacy prompt a desire for clarity, and extremist belief systems offer meaning to a complex social environment through a set of straight-forward but lacking assumptions that make the world more digestible. Take for example the immigration crisis at the border or the EU refugee crisis, while both parties endorsed diametrically different solutions to the crises, both extremists believed in a simple solution as opposed to their moderate counterparts who believed that more nuanced and complex solutions were needed.

Poor metacognition

This study established that those with more extreme beliefs showed greater confidence in their knowledge and beliefs, regardless of whether they were right or wrong. A research led by Steven Flemming at UCL in London studied this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that those with more radical political views indicated higher confidence in their choices, even and especially when they were wrong, and showed an unwillingness to update their confidence with new information. “We found that people who hold radical political beliefs have worse metacognition than those with more moderate views,” Flemming said. “They often have a misplaced certainty when they’re actually wrong about something and are resistant to changing their beliefs in the face of evidence that proves them wrong.”

While the research was unable to determine the arrow of cause and effect, metacognitive failure often lead to extreme views. People tend to fall into extreme views because of lacking metacognition, but then those extreme views reinforce this cognitive style in order to maintain themselves. In order words, overconfidence creates a stubbornness that allow people with extreme views to easily brush off dissenting opinions, more moderate narratives and the consensus of opinion altogether.


Anything as complex as our political views is going to have multifaceted causes. Factors such as cognitive style, emotional outlook, metacognitive ability, and other personality traits must to be assessed in conjunction with environmental factors such as education, culture, exposure, trauma and other environmental factors to fully determine what causes a person to accept radical beliefs.

While we can’t control most of these factors, we can control our efforts to understand and address extreme views and through education, metacognition is a skill that can be taught. The best way to minimize radicalization is to always maintain a critical mind and ensure that we expose ourselves to more moderate and nuanced views, to crowd out the extreme ones as much as possible.

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