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How We Empower Political Extremists

Research documents a non-reciprocal attraction toward co-partisan extremists.

Political differences between liberals and conservatives have captivated political psychologists for decades. But such work often overlooks or downplays a possibly more significant distinction: ideological extremity. Although extremists on the left and right might be motivated by very different ends (e.g., to overthrow vs. uphold existing hierarchies), both are more willing than their more moderate co-partisans to resort to violence to achieve their aims.

The precise percentages of Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters who engaged in violence or destruction over the summer of 2020 and Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol just weeks ago are unknown. But based on the percentage of entirely peaceful BLM protests and the relatively small number of people who protested at the Capitol, a reasonable estimate for each is substantially less than 1%. Yet the media and public attention this <1% received creates the false impression that they represent their broader groups. Average Democrats and Republicans, perhaps unwittingly, often contribute to these misperceptions by supporting or refusing to denounce their co-partisan violent extremists and elevating the opposition’s extremists on social media.

Two recent papers documented a nonreciprocal attraction toward co-partisan ideological extremists, termed political acrophily—attraction to extremes. In one set of studies, participants reported their emotional reactions to pictures of political situations. Participants were then shown the emotional responses of six peers and instructed to eliminate three peers per round over twenty rounds. By the end, both liberal and conservative participants had narrowed their peer group to those who had similar, but also more extreme, emotional reactions as they had themselves.

In another study, participants reported five political attitudes, had a series of five-minute interactions with strangers discussing those political attitudes, and then reported how much they liked each interaction partner. Interpersonal attraction was better predicted by the consistency of interaction partners’ responses with one’s political ideology than by the attitudinal similarity between individuals. In other words, participants most liked others who were clearly and easily categorizable as ideological comrades, rather than those with whom they agreed the most. Consequently, moderates liked extremists (more obvious ideologues) more than extremists liked moderates.

These results suggest that we are attracted to others who display unambiguous partisan loyalty signals. In the abstract, people express support for politicians who cross party lines to vote their conscience, but when given the choice between this kind of political maverick or a party-line politician, people prefer the latter. Extreme, rigid, dogmatic defenders of our political ingroups demonstrate tribal loyalty that can be appealing to those of us who care about our political coalition's success, even if we are more moderate or have more nuanced beliefs and policy preferences.

This attraction toward extreme, unwavering ideologues—although not puzzling from a competitive tribalism perspective—is somewhat puzzling when we look at the epistemic characteristics of political extremists. Ideological extremists (on both the left and the right) tend to lack many epistemic virtues.

For example, extremists appear to be more cognitively rigid and simple, prone to conspiratorial thinking, excessively confident, self-aggrandizing, and intolerant. And other traits that were once thought to be primarily characteristic of the far-right, such as authoritarianism, have been found also to characterize the far-left and to predict similar outcomes among the left, such as participation in political violence. Otherwise admirable qualities such as cognitive flexibility and intellectual humility, which more frequently characterize political moderates, may signal weakness, uncertainty, and disloyalty to co-partisans. So we favor and reward the dogmatists.

More partisan news (up to a limit) receives more engagement on Facebook and Twitter, more extreme politicians receive more attention from the mainstream media and on social media, and social media participation benefits the fundraising efforts more among extreme politicians. Even when media attention is largely negative, or nothing more than a kind of political extremist rubbernecking, this still could serve as a reward or incentive for extreme political actors who enjoy seeing their faces or names published in prominent outlets and shared by millions on social media. Hate followers on Twitter are still followers, and attention of any kind often can be used to gain greater influence.

The overrepresentation of extreme and flamboyant political actors in the media likely explains in part why political opponents are viewed as more extreme and more homogeneous than they are. People are exposed to a nonrandom extremist sample of the opposition, and so assume they must all be like that. Indeed, less time spent consuming traditional and social media, and more time spent with real-world political opponents, predict more accurate perceptions of opponents.

People will often elevate extremists of the opposing political party, happy to create the unflattering impression that these are typical members of the opposition. Yet creating the impression that extremist views are representative of the broader group can falsely signal to extremists that most people are on their side—that their behavior is normal, tolerable, perhaps even laudable—which likely emboldens them to carry on or perhaps become even more extreme. For example, a recent study found that leading people to believe that most others in their group shared their moral concerns increased their intentions for radical political action.

The new heights of polarization have made both sides reluctant to criticize, denounce, or alienate their own side’s extremists because at least they are on the right side. Indeed, people now hate their political opponents with such intensity that they might rather team up with violent extremists who threaten the norms and institutions that have given a voice to the moderate, measured, and peaceful. If we could remove our partisan goggles, we might find that we have more in common with average members of the political opposition—both in the nuances of their policy preferences and in their temperaments—than with our co-partisan extremists.


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