This Is Why Radicals Can't Recognize When They're Wrong

This Is Why Radicals Can't Recognize When They're Wrong

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Most of us have dealt with radicals—and we all know how frustrating that can be. But you probably didn't know that radicals can't recognize when they're wrong because they lack this one ability.


There are many red flags that signal if someone's a radical, but probably the most common and important one is an inability to recognize when they are wrong, especially when presented with clear and obvious reasons why that's the case. What's worse, the crazier a radical's position is, the more stubborn they get about it. 

All these popular conspiracy theories we see circling around social media, and their advocates—flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, religious fanatics, holocaust deniers, etc.—are clear examples. People who defend these crazy views never even accept they could be wrong. It seems so obvious to them, that questioning their position is unthinkable. That their view could be wrong is, for them, out of the question, no matter the data, no matter the evidence, no matter the facts. Nothing seems to ever contradict their theories. And that's clearly a problem.

A few studies have now given us some insights as to the reasons behind this frustrating phenomenon. Here's why radicals simply can't recognize when they're wrong.

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metacognitive failure study radicals cant see they are wrong

The study

Research published in Current Biology on December 2018 shows that people with radical beliefs actually think differently than the rest. More specifically, radicals lack, or rather, possess far less metacognitive sensitivity than other people. This means radicals are less capable of, or less disposed to, become aware and analyze their own thoughts and beliefs, and thus are less likely to realize that their views are strange, extreme, incoherent, or what have you. 

metacognitive failure study radicals cant see they are wrong

Metacognition in general refers to the ability of analyzing our own thinking. Metacognitive sensitivity is also about distinguishing between one's correct and incorrect judgments. People without metacognitive sensitivity simply stick to their beliefs, regardless of whether they have actually been proven definitely wrong. That means even if their view is clearly a contradiction, they will believe it regardless.

(If anything, they will reject the legitimacy of logic or of science itself, for example, before giving up their prejudice.)

The specific study, presented in a paper called "Metacognitive Failure as a Feature of Holding Radical Beliefs," shows that metacognitive sensitivity is quantifiable, and that radicals have measurably less of it. 

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Defining radicalism

The researchers established a model of 'radicalism' in order to measure it. Through carefully formulated and validated questionnaires, they quantified correlations between political orientation, attitudes toward social issues, tolerance (or lack thereof) towards opposing views, stubbornness, and many other similar considerations. 

On that basis, the researchers defined two general factors to explain these behaviors and tendencies: dogmatism and authoritarianism. Dogmatism encompassed rigidity of beliefs and intolerance towards opposing views. Authoritarianism referred to one's tendency to limit their opinions to what their in-group authorities and norms stipulate, and to the aggression manifested against those who don't adhere to the same authorities and norms. Taken together, authoritarianism and dogmatism define radicalism as a whole. 

metacognitive failure study radicals cant see they are wrong

Are liberals or conservatives more prone to radicalism?

Both liberals and conservatives can be radicals. That's a fact. The definition of radicalism does not favor one side or the other. But people with right-wing tendencies have been consistently found to be more authoritarian, according to multiple studies. This new paper found the same results, replicating and further confirming that conservatives have more radical tendencies on average.

That does not mean, however, that there aren't radical liberals.

An experiment on radicals

Equipped with this understanding of radicalism, the researchers measured it on a different group of people and gave them a specific activity. When shown two squares with flashing dots for a very short time, participants were supposed to pick the square with the most dots. The idea was to see how confident they were about their answers, and how stubborn in their conviction. They were meant to self-evaluate their performance, giving researchers a clear indicator of their metacognitive sensitivity.

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Moderates rated their confidence level regarding their answers depending on how many dots were present. If a similar number of dots was present on both squares, then moderates would rate their confidence lower, as they had no time to count and realized their initial impression could have been wrong. The more clearly filled with dots a square was when compared to the other, moderates tended to rate their confidence higher. 

So, yeah: facing indeterminate facts, moderates acknowledged they could have been wrong. This was not the case for radicals.

metacognitive failure study radicals cant see they are wrong

It's not that radicals were overconfident about their performance. It's that they could not track how well they did at all. There was no relevant pattern in their self-evaluation; so, unlike the moderates, they applied no rule. Their answers and confidence were all over the place. They were unable to understand and analyze their own performance, which showed they were less metacognitive sensitive than moderates. 

The researchers then performed a further test. This time, they gave participants a chance to reevaluate their answers by showing them the squares and dots a second time, after they've given an answer but before they rated their performance. If the participants incorporated the new evidence into their beliefs, they should rate their answers with a more suitable degree of confidence.

Moderates incorporated the new evidence as expected. But radicals didn't. Though they rated their confidence higher when the new information showed them to be correct (like moderates did), they failed to acknowledge the evidence when they were wrong.

In short, radicals are not only less likely to change their minds, but they actually lack the relevant self-awareness for them to admit they could ever be wrong—even to themselves. They simply cannot see that they are. Or at least, they are unwilling to see, deliberately or not.

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Is there hope? 

Fortunately, metacognition can be improved. Like a muscle, we can train ourselves to develop our metacognitive sensitivity, whether we're liberal or conservative. No matter how deeply we hold our views or how fond we are of them, we must be able to challenge our most basic intuitions if we're ever to find a way to coexist with those whose opinions we don't like. 

metacognitive failure study radicals cant see they are wrong

It doesn't matter if you think you're absolutely right. Improving your metacognition doesn't mean abandoning your innermost views nor betraying your moral compass. It just means you'll develop your self-awareness. There's no true downside to that. If your views cannot stand to self-scrutiny, then you should not be maintaining them anyway.

Since metacognition is key for improving learning outcomes, there's already a good amount of research to teach it to students. Meditation also helps. It is thus important to train ourselves, and promote this kind of training in others, especially children, if we want to improve the way the world handles political and moral discussions. Who knows, we might come to more agreements than we ever thought possible after all. 

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