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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 28-Jan-18


Sunday 28-January-18

Simplicity, complexity, extremism and moderation: How much you think changes how you behave

Sometimes people take extreme views. Occasionally they are right, but most times they are wrong. The world is a complex place. People have complex thoughts. Things are not as simple as they often seem, yet extremist views can be very simplistic.

There are two approaches that are often seen in life. An example is in photography, where a 'good photograph' stimulates one of two different needs. Views of calm seas and simple portraits are easy to take in and interpret. They do not take much effort, requiring very little thought to understand. Other pictures, such as of a bird colony or cityscape, often require more thought. This is found even more in abstract art, where the purpose is to stimulate interest and wonderment. Hence we have 'easy' and 'interesting' needs that are satisfied by 'simple' and 'complex' images.

Even more fundamental, when we are making sense of the world, we take one of two routes. Petty and Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model call these the central or peripheral routes. Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow' calls them System 1 and System 2. The underlying issue is that we have neither the time nor the brainpower to process the non-stop information stream that assails our senses. Peripheral, System 1, simple thinking is quick and easy as we use heuristics, habits and the unconscious mind for 'good enough' assessment. This frees the conscious mind for central, System 2, complex thinking where we pay more attention and consider things more carefully.

This principle translates to everything from jobs to political views. Many people like their jobs to be moderately interesting, but mostly easy. Complexity causes them stress. Others relish a challenge and are prepared to take risks. In politics, philosophy and other topics where idealism often appears, this easy-or-complex choice can lead people to extreme or moderate views.

Extreme views are necessarily limited as they exclude all other views. They find the easy route attractive, with simple ideas. For ideas to be stable, they are often based either be on a fixed source or on a charismatic leader. Sources are typically a single book or canon of literature, such as religious or scientific works. Extremist leaders need sufficiently ideas or charisma that other people will follow them and blindly (and hence easily) accept what they are told. Such leaders may have their own ideas or may be interpreters of pre-existing works.

Those holding extreme views also tend to simplify other people as good (those like me) or bad (everyone else). Non-believers may be cast as mistaken, but are often thought of as being bad people who know what is true and yet oppose this due to an underlying reactionary, corrupt and even evil nature.

Intelligence plays a factor here as brighter and educated people can think more quickly, process more information and produce more accurate assessments, and so can use the central route more often. There is also a comfort factor, where consideration of complex ideas may well mean accepting a situation where you do not know everything and must accept more uncertainty. People who avoid cognitive and social risk are more likely to take the easier, peripheral route as they adopt beliefs from others in order to gain social acceptance and avoid mental discomfort. In this way, extremist societies are born as large numbers accept simple, passionate and aggressive views.

Another significant factor in radicalization is socialisation, where people get converted via a process that typically includes isolation from alternative views, destruction of previous identity and intensive indoctrination into the new, 'pure' way of thinking. Cults often work like this. Whether they have religious goals or it is more about worship of a charismatic leader, they hide themselves from the world. Isolation works well when you have unusual practices, as it takes followers away from normalizing influences, including persuasive relatives. Other types of extremist want to be near unbelievers, either to preach at them or to attack them. This is particularly true of religious and political groups who believe their way is the only way, and that other groups should follow suit or be punished in some severe way.

Within extreme communities, there can easily be in-fighting and factionalism based on ideas of purity, where the more extreme believers consider themselves better and more deserving. This also contains the doom of extremists as when they have defeated their opposition or are unable to make a difference, they turn inwards against one another. Their combative nature can also trip them up in debates which they may well see as a war of ideals.

People with moderate views, on the other hand, tend more to compromise. They seek approaches and solutions that most people will find acceptable, if not perfect. They are realists, working with what they have rather than some idealistic view of what should be. They view extremists as strange, selfish and maybe dangerous in their readiness to use extreme methods on those who criticize or otherwise do not agree with the extreme views.

And yet, while extremist views can lead to serious harm of societies, including their own, they can also be a source of needed change. Extreme views are often born out of real situations, for example where a society is run by a wealthy elite (even within a democracy), then left-wing, grass-roots revolution can grow. In extremist systems, the unabated pendulum tends to swing from one side to another. This is where moderates come it, as with a damping of the pendulum the damage of extreme control can be minimized and a reasonably civil society maintained amongst all the change.

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