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Why flaws in our thinking make us anti-establishment

Brash, confident and resolute; the most vocal political figures in 2019 seem to be absolutely steadfast in their convictions. Political discourse has become exhaustingly predictable, not least because no one ever seems to change their mind. The clarity of the most radical political rhetoric has been attributed as one reason why populism is on the rise. But the appeal of simple, right-wing and left-wing ideas needs to be tempered by one fact: voters for political extremes might be overplaying their knowledge.

Anti-establishment voters are less knowledgeable about politics than more moderate voters, but overestimate how much they know. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist and associate professor at VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands, makes it clear that anti-establishment voters are not less intelligent, or less concerned with society. The observation is, perhaps, due to the difference between being uninformed and mis-informed. 

Curiously, this overconfidence seems to have reversed since the 1980s. Back then, people at the political extremes were more knowledgeable, says van Prooijen. “I have been thinking about an explanation,” he tells me. “Nowadays we have a lot of alternative news sites and you can select your own news on the internet. Before there was just mainstream news. A lot of this is not due to extremes being uninformed – but they are misinformed.”

Anti-establishment sentiments across Europe, Latin America and the US are shaping current affairs. So why do those of us who are least knowledgeable gravitate towards the extremes? How justified is this confidence? And what does this say about our reasoning abilities?

The political scientist André Krouwel, with Dutch national newspaper Trouw, developed a research tool for collecting data on voting intentions during national elections and referenda. The Netherlands is a multi-party political system; governments are usually formed from three or four different parties out of a dozen or so options. So, understandably, the differences between the parties' policies can be quite subtle.

The tool, called Kieskompas (literally, ‘choose compass’), helps voters to learn about the multitude of parties by asking a series of questions and then showing you which party matches your beliefs most closely. Krouwel then contacts users of Kieskompas to ask them about their voting intentions for use in his research. It is this data, of over 13,000 voters, that van Prooijen used to measure overconfidence in political knowledge. 

“Our basic line of reasoning was that anti-establishment sentiments are part of populism. Lots of these sentiments are simplistic; it is a little black and white and without shades of grey,” says van Prooijen. “If the world looks simple then it is easy to be highly confident about it, but it is also likely to be wrong because in reality the world is complex. We had a unique opportunity to test it on a referendum [in the Netherlands] on the EU treaty with Ukraine. This was a classic establishment versus anti-establishment debate. That referendum was really like Brexit in terms of the sentiments it elicits – concerns about people from Ukraine taking jobs, and things like that. although in terms of consequences it was completely incomparable.” 

Both the radical-left and -right are predisposed to overestimating their levels of political knowledge. Van Prooijen says that both types of radicals are comparable on some cognitive biases and patterns of thinking. But, he found it is specifically stronger at the radical-right end of the spectrum, where rhetoric tends to be more rigid.

The rigidity of the political right has been observed in US politics, too. “Republicans are more close-minded and driven by emotions than the left, but when you compare the extremes to each other, you start to see similarities,” says van Prooijen. “The extremes are more simplistic and confident and driven by anxiety [on both sides of] the centre. We find simple rhetoric cognitively easy.” 

What is cognitively easy about blaming the establishment? And why might people, particularly people on the radical right, find cognitively easy options attractive?

“One basic motivations that all humans share is that we want to understand a complex reality,” says van Prooijen. “Complexities are far more cognitively demanding than thinking in terms of black and white. If we don’t want to put in a lot of effort in our thinking, we don’t look out for subtleties. The radical right matches this thinking style. Right-wing ideas are simple ideas that are easy to digest. These politicians generally use catchy one liners that are appealing.”

One explanation why political extremes tend to coalesce strongly around simple ideas is because of a phenomenon called ‘minority influence’. Researchers have found that simple, powerful rhetoric will pull moderate voters further to the extremes – both right and left – of the party with which they identify. In this case, the Tea Party, a small group of very conservative Republicans in the US, made other more moderate members of the Republican party more extreme.

This happens even when those moderate voters do not whole-heartedly agree with the rhetoric of the minority group. They might be saying something that moderates strongly disagree with, but just the act of saying those extreme ideas publicly is enough to shift them on related topics. Because those moderate voters also belong to the wider group, the Republican party, for example, moderates’ cognitive biases trick them into thinking they are closer to the extreme end of their own party than the more moderate end of the other – even though this might not be true.

In two-party systems, like in the US, this binary pulling in opposite directions can be more clearly seen than in the Dutch system. Van Prooijen hopes to repeat his study with voters in the US presidential elections in 2020. “I would expect that overconfidence is strong there,” he says. “But it will be a little bit odd because the anti-establishment is already in power.”


William Park is a writer and editor, formerly of the BBC and The Times. He writes about sports, occupational and social psychology, culture, health and design. Further information on William is at his website, and he is on Twitter @williamhpark.