A recent study — of admittedly limited scope — suggests a psychosocial mechanism by which people latch onto and maintain extremist viewpoints. Live Science reports on this:

For many people — more than you might think — public and political dialogue seems dominated by extreme views that don’t resonate.

A new study suggests a possible reason: People with extreme views seem more willing to share their opinions than others, but only if they believe, even falsely, that their views are popular. …

The upshot of the research: Students who held extreme views on the use of alcohol on campus were more likely than others to voice their views. The key to their bold approach, scientists found, was that they tended to believe their views actually represented a majority, when that was not in fact the case.

What happens, then, is a combination snowball and echo-chamber effect:

That situation can set up a self-feeding cycle that promotes the voicing of extreme views on one side of an issue and causes moderate and even extremists on the other side to stay relatively quiet.

One person who believes his/her extreme — but minority — view to be popular, talks about it, giving the appearance to the (few) others that agree, that it is, in fact, popular, and they begin talking about it … and eventually, all their chatter drowns out everyone else.

The article explains how the study was set up and executed. And its authors arrive at this supposition:

The findings suggest possible parallels in politics, [Ohio State professor and co-author Kimberly Rios] Morrison figures.

She cites a hypothetical community that tends to be moderate politically, but leans slightly liberal. People with more extreme liberal views in the community may be more likely than others to attend publicly visible protests and display bumper stickers espousing their liberal views, because they think the community supports them.

A self-feeding cycle might ensue.

“Everyone else sees these extreme opinions being expressed on a regular basis and they may eventually come to believe their community is more liberal than it actually is,” Morrison said. “The same process could occur in moderately conservative communities.”

When you add to this the power of the mass media — which largely invented the “Right vs. Left,” “red-state vs. blue-state” mantra and keep presenting the US as a country crudely divided by extreme ideological thinking, it’s no wonder Americans cannot think in any other terms.

Granted, this particular study has a number of caveats, so it’s not safe to assume this scenario is “proven.” At the moment it remains merely an interesting and plausible hypothesis.

Hat tip: Crossroads Arabia blog.

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