Image of a fire burning in front of riot police.

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What makes some people radical and prone to taking extreme views on topics? Radical, violent political movements have received a lot of attention in the news cycle, while non-violent radicalism is a significant impediment to the compromises that are necessary to build a functional society. At the same time some things we now take as accepted, like women having the right to vote or same-sex couples the right to marry, were once at the radical fringes of society. Given its importance for the evolution of societies, radicalism seems worth exploring.

One common feature of radicalism is a confidence in the rightness of your ideas, even if they go against those of society at large. So why do radicals have so much certainty? A new study pins the blame on a faulty metacognition, the process by which people recognize when their ideas might not be correct and update their beliefs accordingly.

Cognition, how meta

Our brains are not simply decision-making boxes. We’re constantly evaluating how certain we are about our ideas, which can help us minimize risks—if we’re not sure whether our opponent is bluffing, we’re less likely to go all-in on a bet. Then, as more information becomes available, we’ll generally re-evaluate our former beliefs. If we end up watching a player make a series of bluffs, then we’ll include that information the next time we need to evaluate the probability.

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