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Prof: Extremists tend to dominate debates

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Psychologists in America have revealed a shock insight from a recently-announced study: people with extreme or "deviant" views are much more willing to share their opinions than those with moderate ideas. This is thought to lead groups or communities actually composed mainly of moderates to acquire an extreme character.

The study in question was carried out by trick-cyclists Kimberly Rios Morrison of Ohio State and Dale T Miller of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The example of "extremism" or "deviance" identified by the two profs in their experiments was a belief that students should be allowed to drink alcohol in the common areas of their dormitory accommodation. This is forbidden at Stanford, and those who strongly disagree with the rule were also those most likely to say so.

According to the psychologists, this was because they believed that the rest of the student body was on their side.

“Students who were stridently pro-alcohol tended to think that their opinion was much more popular than it actually was,” says Morrison.

“There’s this stereotype that college students are very pro-alcohol, and even most college students believe it. Most students think of themselves as less pro-alcohol than average.”

By doing a certain amount of cunning lying, however, the trick-cyclists convinced the pro-booze loudmouths that in fact nobody agreed with them. This, apparently, shut them up.

“It is only when they have this sense that they are in the majority that extremely pro-alcohol students are more willing to express their views on the issue,” according to Morrison.

However it seemed that the extreme anti-grog lobby never really became willing to speak up, even when they had been falsely told that everyone was on their side.

"Their view that they are in the minority may be so deeply entrenched that it is difficult to change ... They don’t have the experience expressing their opinions on the subject like the pro-alcohol extremists do," theorises Morrison.

The prof then goes on to extrapolate this thinking into other areas of debate, suggesting that the syndrome of extremists falsely believing that everyone in a group backs them leads to a sort of positive-feedback loop. Extreme opinions are aired, people hear them more, people falsely assume that the entire group holds those beliefs and so it becomes gradually more extreme in appearance - if not in the actuality of its members' beliefs.

“You have a cycle that feeds on itself: the more you hear these extremists expressing their opinions, the more you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are normal for your community," explains Morrison.

The prof believes that her group-positive-feedback theory could explain the (apparently) heavily polarised nature of US politics in recent times, or other debates in which each side appears increasingly extreme/evil to the other - whereas in fact most on both sides actually hold more moderate opinions. Examples could include environmental matters, the perennial arguments regarding what kind of women are most attractive etc.

There may not be a "monolithic" silent majority in these arguments, according to the theory, but "the minority may be more vocal".

We say: we're sure we speak for all decent people everywhere in stating categorically that studies of this type are hogwash and those who write them thieving parasitical crooks leeching from the public purse.

Well, maybe not in all cases. But we do struggle with the idea college students aren't pro-alcohol.

The announcement from Ohio State here, and the profs' paper Expressing deviant opinions: Believing you are in the majority helps is here. ®

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