Psychology: Those who are dogmatic and slower to make decisions are more susceptible to extremism

There may be a psychological ‘signature’ for extremism — with those who are more dogmatic and slower at decision making being more susceptible to radicalisation.

This is the conclusion of experts from Cambridge, who used a broad range of psychological surveys to identify the mental characteristics common to extremists.

These included a poorer working memory, impulsive and risk-taking behaviour, sensation-seeking tendencies and slower unconscious processing of stimuli.

People with this combination of traits, the team said, were more likely to endorse the use of violence in support of their ideologies — whether social, political or religious.

These findings could pave the way towards new methods to help identify and support those individuals who are more vulnerable to radicalisation.

In fact, the team report, cognitive and personality assessments can improve the prediction of ideological worldviews by 4–15 times over simple demographic data. 

There may be a psychological ‘signature’ for extremism — with those who are more dogmatic and slower at decision making being more susceptible to radicalisation

‘I’m interested in the role that hidden cognitive functions play in sculpting ideological thinking,’ said paper author and psychologist Leor Zmigrod of the University of Cambridge.

‘Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalised or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right. We want to know why particular individuals are more susceptible.’

‘By examining “hot” emotional cognition alongside the “cold” unconscious cognition of basic information processing we can see a psychological signature for those at risk of engaging with an ideology in an extreme way.’

‘Subtle difficulties with complex mental processing may subconsciously push people towards extreme doctrines that provide clearer, more defined explanations of the world.’ 

This, he continued, makes these people ‘susceptible to toxic forms of dogmatic and authoritarian ideologies.’

The new study built upon previous research from California’s Stanford University, in which 522 US adults completed a series of 22 different behavioural surveys and 37 cognitive tasks intended to shed light on the origins of self-control.

Dr Zmigrod and colleagues successfully recruited 334 of the participants from the 2016–7 study, asking them to complete 16 extra surveys designed to determine their attitudes towards ideologies from patriotism and religiosity to authoritarianism.

Based on data from both sets of surveys, the team found that for all the ideologies they examined there was a consistent psychological profile for all those people who endorsed ‘extreme pro-group action,  including ideologically-driven violence.

The extremist mind, they said, harbours a mix of conservative and dogmatic psychological signatures — and tends to be cognitively cautious, slower at perceptual processing and operates with a weaker working memory.

Extremists were also found to have impulsive traits, such that drive them to seek risky and sensation-driven experiences.

‘There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines,’ said Dr Zmigrod.

‘Understanding this could help us to support those individuals vulnerable to extremism, and foster social understanding across ideological divides.’

The study revealed the psychological signatures that appear to underpin both fierce political conservatism and dogmatism.

Conservatism, the team said, is linked to what they call ‘cognitive caution’, with a slower-but-more-accurate unconscious decision making process than the faster-but-less-precise approaches taken in more liberal-minded people.

Along with nationalism, conservatism was found to be linked to traits including greater goal-orientedness, impulsivity and lower social risk-taking. 

Both groups were also found to perform what the researchers called ‘temporal discounting’ — in which rewards are thought to lose value if delayed. 

Strong religious beliefs were found to be rooted in similar cognitive traits as conservatism, but with higher levels of risk perception and agreeableness. 

The rigid worldviews of dogmatists, meanwhile, appear to be rooted in a combination of slow processing of stimuli with a heightened impulsivity, less social risk-taking and reduced agreeableness. 

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B


Experts from Northwestern University sifted through data from more than 1.5 million questionnaire respondents.

Their research suggests that everyone falls into one of four distinct clusters of personality types.

These are — 


Average people are high in neuroticism and extraversion, while low in openness.

‘I would expect that the typical person would be in this cluster,’ said Martin Gerlach, a postdoctoral fellow and the paper’s first author.

Females are more likely than males to fall into the Average type.


The Reserved type is emotionally stable, but not open or neurotic.

They are not particularly extroverted, but can be somewhat agreeable and conscientious.

Role Models

Role Models score low in neuroticism and high in all the other traits. The likelihood that someone is a role model increases dramatically with age. 

‘These are people who are dependable and open to new ideas,’ said study lead Luís Amaral.

‘These are good people to be in charge of things.

‘In fact, life is easier if you have more dealings with role models.’ 

More women than men are likely to be role models.


Self-Centred people score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

‘These are people you don’t want to hang out with,’ co-author William Revelle, professor of psychology, said.

There is a very dramatic decrease in the number of self-centred types as people age, both with women and men.

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