It’s Not Just Politics: People with Extreme Attitudes are Inordinately Convinced They Are Right

Kaitlin Toner, Ph.D. Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network 2301 Vanderbilt Place Nashville, TN Interview with:
Kaitlin Toner, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment
Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network
Nashville, TN 37240
Dr. Kaitlin Toner, is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University.
The study was conducted colleagues Mark Leary, Michael Asher, and Katrina Jongman-Sereno while Dr. Toner was a graduate student at Duke University. What are the main findings of the study?

Dr. Toner: The take home message is that people who hold more extreme attitudes also tend to feel superior about those attitudes, whereas people with moderate attitudes aren’t as convinced of the superiority of their own beliefs.  Although it might seem that this connection between attitude extremity and superiority seems reasonable, there’s no logical reason why people who hold moderate, middle-of-the-road attitudes should not think that their moderate attitudes are superior to other people’s.  But they don’t tend to do that; it’s the people with extreme attitudes who are inordinately convinced that they are right.

These findings are important because it sheds some light on how people become so polarized in their opinions: they don’t just take a side, but they believe everyone who disagrees with that view must be wrong. Importantly, it’s not just one political party who thinks this way, as previous research had suggested, but rather that it happens for both liberal and conservative attitudes.  And, given the stalemate in Washington, understanding why people become so entrenched in their views – even when there is often not an objectively correct answer – is more important than ever. Were any of the findings unexpected?

Dr. Toner: We were surprised at how evenly split the belief superiority was between liberals and conservatives. However, this may have had to do with the 9 specific questions that we asked about.  It’s possible that if we had asked about every possible political issue, we would have found that one side was felt more superior than the other. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Toner: This research affects anyone who wants to understand the increased partisanship of American politics or why people in the media seem so confident in their viewpoints.  It also should affect (but probably doesn’t) people who inexplicably feel superior in their beliefs.  At this point, we don’t have a lot of answers to how to fix this problem.  I would suggest that if people find themselves in this position, they should stop and consider why they hold that opinion and whether it’s possible that their political opponents might have valid points to add to the conversation. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Toner: We are now working on research on belief superiority in other domains, including people’s beliefs about environmental issues and beliefs about relatively trivial issues like social norms, preferences, and etiquette. This will help us determine whether belief superiority is a general trait (that is, some people think all of their beliefs are superior) or whether people tend to be feel more superior in some domains than others.  We are also examining some of the consequences of belief superiority to see how people who feel superior in their views react to information that contradicts or challenges their beliefs.  We are also studying “intellectual humility” – the degree to which people recognize that their beliefs might, in fact, be wrong.


Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived  Belief Superiority

Kaitlin Toner, Mark R. Leary, Michael W. Asher, and Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno

 Psychological Science 0956797613494848, first published on October 4, 2013 doi:10.1177/0956797613494848

Last Updated on June 9, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD