Political Extremists May be Less Prone to Anchoring Bias

Political Extremist protester

People at the extremes of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, may be less influenced by outside information on a simple estimation task than political moderates, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study, conducted by Tilburg University’s Mark J. Brandt and Anthony Evans, and The College of New Jersey’s Jarret T. Crawford, suggests that because political extremists consider their own beliefs to be superior to those of others, they may be more resistant to the so-called anchor bias, even for non-political information.

“Political differences really drive a wedge between people, and previous research has shown that people on the political extremes are more likely to perceive large partisan differences and political polarization and to be intolerant of people with different political beliefs,”

said Brandt, who led the research.

Mental Deficiency vs Strong Beliefs

Some look upon extremists as having some sort of mental deficiency that leads them to be drawn to extreme political positions, while others describe extremists as having particularly strident and confident beliefs, explained Brandt.

“We wanted to know which one of these possibilities seemed to be more likely,”

he said.

To find out, Brandt and colleagues employed a commonly used anchoring task, in which participants are asked to make an estimate after being given an anchor number. For example, participants may be asked:

“The distance between New York and San Francisco is greater than 2,000 miles. How far is it?”

Studies have indicated that the anchor number has a significant impact on participants’ estimations; that is, individuals make final guesses that are closer to the anchor by working up or down from the given number. Individuals beginning with large anchor numbers tend to have excessively high estimates, whereas those beginning with little anchor numbers have the opposite effect.

The task is politically neutral, and so it provides a tool for teasing apart the two competing characterizations of extremists. If political extremists take a relatively unthinking approach, then they’re likely to rely on heuristics in making decisions and their estimates will be close to the anchor number.

If, however, extremists are especially thoughtful and confident decision makers, they should produce estimates that are farther away from the anchor.

Role of Ideology and Attitudes

For the first experiment, the researchers examined data from 4,846 participants gathered from 25 samples of participants in the United States as part of the Many Labs initiative. All of the participants answered four anchor-related questions, with some randomly assigned to get low anchors (e.g., distance is greater than 1,500 miles) and others receiving high anchors (e.g., distance is less than 6,000 miles) for a particular question.

In general, the anchors provided by the experimenters influenced participants’ estimates, in line with many previous studies.

However, the data also revealed that participants’ ideology and attitudes played an important role: people who were ideologically more extreme and reported more extreme attitudes on specific political issues produced estimates that were further away from the anchors, indicating greater resistance to the anchor bias.

More Confident Judgments

A second experiment confirmed these findings and revealed a potential mediating factor: belief superiority. People who were more extreme in ideology and political attitudes also reported stronger support for the idea that their beliefs were superior to those of others. And people who reported greater belief superiority, in turn, produced estimates that were farther from the anchor.

Notably, the findings could not be explained by the participants’ level of education or their supposed desire for “cognitive closure.” Furthermore, the findings were comparable when the direction of the anchor was indicated and when it was left undetermined (e.g., Is Chicago’s population less than or greater than 200,000?).

“These findings suggest that political extremists may make more confident judgments and are not necessarily unthinkingly relying on heuristics,”

said psychological scientist and lead researcher Mark J. Brandt of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

While previous research has frequently found personality and cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives, this new study shows a consistent effect of political extremism.

“We aren’t sure why there are differences between liberals and conservatives in some situations, but not in others — this will be a useful puzzle to solve in the future,”

said Brandt.

  1. M. J. Brandt, A. M. Evans, J. T. Crawford. The Unthinking or Confident Extremist? Political Extremists Are More Likely Than Moderates to Reject Experimenter-Generated Anchors. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614559730

Last Updated on December 29, 2023