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Friday, March 24, 2023

Psychological Features of Extreme Political Ideologies

van Prooijen, J.-W., & Krouwel, A. P. M. (2019).
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 
28(2), 159–163. 


In this article, we examine psychological features of extreme political ideologies. In what ways are political left- and right-wing extremists similar to one another and different from moderates? We propose and review four interrelated propositions that explain adherence to extreme political ideologies from a psychological perspective. We argue that (a) psychological distress stimulates adopting an extreme ideological outlook; (b) extreme ideologies are characterized by a relatively simplistic, black-and-white perception of the social world; (c) because of such mental simplicity, political extremists are overconfident in their judgments; and (d) political extremists are less tolerant of different groups and opinions than political moderates. In closing, we discuss how these psychological features of political extremists increase the likelihood of conflict among groups in society.


The four psychological features discussed here suggest that political extremism is fueled by feelings of distress and is reflected in cognitive simplicity, overconfidence, and intolerance. These insights are important to understanding how political polarization increases political instability and the likelihood of conflict between groups in society. Excessive confidence in the moral superiority of one’s own ideological beliefs impedes meaningful interaction and cooperation with different ideological groups and structures political decision making as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Strong moral convictions consistently decrease people’s ability to compromise and even increase a willingness to use violence to reach ideological goals (Skitka, 2010). These processes are exacerbated by people’s tendency to selectively expose themselves to people and ideas that validate their own convictions. For instance, both information and misinformation selectively spread in online echo chambers of like-minded people (Del Vicario et al., 2016).

This article extends current insights in at least three ways. First, the features proposed here help to explain why throughout the past century not only extreme-right but also extreme-left movements (e.g., socialism, communism) have thrived in times of crisis (Midlarsky, 2011). Second, understanding the mind-set of extremists in all corners of the political spectrum is important in times of polarization and populist rhetoric. The current propositions provide insights into why traditionally moderate parties in the EU have suffered substantial electoral losses. In particular, the support for well-established parties on the moderate left (e.g., social democrats) and moderate right (e.g., Christian democrats) has dropped in recent years, whereas the support for left- and right-wing populist parties has increased (Krouwel, 2012). Third, the present arguments are based on evidence from multiple countries with different political systems (van Prooijen & Krouwel, 2017), which suggests that they apply to both two-party systems (e.g., the United States) and multiparty systems (e.g., many European countries).