Investigating Extremist Brains and Building Cognitive Resilience

Investigating Extremist Brains and Building Cognitive Resilience

Written by Dr Leor Zmigrod, University of Cambridge

When we imagine the radicalized individual, we typically focus on the external layers of hardship and disadvantage that encase them. Economic challenges, social isolation, demographic vulnerabilities, the preying hands of propagandists who try to convert them to their ideological cause. We rarely look within at the ways in which their minds work – we seldom ask how individual differences in cognition and emotion can make some individuals more vulnerable to ideological extremism than others. This is the gap that my research in political psychology and political neuroscience seeks to address: what cognitive traits render an individual more susceptible to – or more resilient against – radicalization?

In a recent study of around 350 US citizens, we examined the relationship between individuals’ cognitive traits – the unconscious ways in which their brains learn and process information from the environment – and their ideological worldviews. We found striking parallels between how individuals perform on neuropsychological tasks and the kind of political, nationalistic, religious, extremist, and dogmatic attitudes they adhere to.

Each participant in our study completed a large battery of personality tests and neuropsychological tasks which tap into implicit individual differences in how we learn from the environment, form decisions, and react to changes or challenges. All of these tasks are neutral and objective: participants are given instructions about visual stimuli moving on the screen and do not have any prior knowledge of what mental process the task is measuring. For example in one task participants are asked to memorize a series of visual shapes and then report the order in which they appeared on their screen. In a different task, they are asked to determine whether a group of dots is moving to the left or to the right.  My colleagues and I at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University used individuals’ performance on these kinds of “brain games” to extract information about their perception, learning, and ability to engage in complex and strategic mental processing. We then examined how these cognitive dispositions relate to their proclivities towards ideological extremism and dogmatism.

We found that individuals with extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks; they struggle to complete psychological tests that require intricate mental steps. People who endorse violence to protect their ideological group – across the political spectrum – also possess poor emotion regulation skills; they are more impulsive and seek sensations and thrills. This makes sense when we imagine the kind of individual who is willing to harm innocent others for the sake of an ideology.

In another set of studies, we found that individuals who endorse violence against outgroups and are willing to sacrifice themselves for an ideological group are more cognitively rigid. On neuropsychological tasks that require mental adaptability and agility in the face of changing rules, individuals who support ideological violence are likely to struggle. This is true regardless of the political leaning of the individual; ideological extremity is linked to cognitive rigidity on neutral psychological tasks.  Once more, these tasks are politically neutral and tap into unconscious processes: the participants in our studies are merely moving shapes on their screens, and we later extract information from their behaviour about their learning and cognition. We can therefore harness methodologies from cognitive science to elucidate what makes a particular brain more likely to support ideological violence and self-sacrifice.

This line of research raises several important policy questions. Firstly, how can this knowledge help us support vulnerable individuals and vulnerable communities? From a practical perspective, perhaps disseminating the information about these individual vulnerabilities can be useful for community organizers and practitioners on the ground. They can offer support networks a sense of the psychological risk factors for extremism before an individual is already on the trajectory towards radicalization. It is valuable to recognize that cognitive rigidity, poor capacities to process complex information, and a difficulty with emotion regulation can make an individual more susceptible to ideological narratives that offer rigid doctrines, simple and absolutist solutions, and are highly emotionally-evocative. Sharing this information with policymakers and counterextremism practitioners who work with at-risk communities can allow us to pre-emptively offer educational programmes that promote cognitive flexibility, cognitive complexity, and emotion regulation support. This should have downstream effects on their psychological resistance in the face of radicalization, regardless of whether the ideology is political, religious, nationalistic, right-wing or left-wing. We can therefore use this science to build programmes of resilience and care.

It is thus essential to remember that the cognitive traces that ideologies leave behind may not necessarily be fixed. After all, if our brains reflect our ideologies, and our ideologies are chosen, then we have the capacity to change, grow, and become more open-minded and tolerant. So when a brain commits to a radical ideology, or, occasionally, opts to engage in dialogue and compassion – these are free decisions that only the individual themselves can choose or reject. The critical role of policy is to facilitate and build the cognitive resilience and social platforms necessary for individuals to be able to choose open-mindedness and liberalism. With an evidence-based and sensitive approach, policymakers are perfectly situated to enable these psychological possibilities for flexibility and tolerance. These are imperative steps for societies that wish to champion peace, prosperity, and security for all.

Biography: Dr Leor Zmigrod is a Research Fellow at the Department of Psychology and Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Her research has been recognized through the Glushko Prize, ESCAN Young Investigator Prize, Forbes 30 Under 30, and Women of the Future Science Award. She recently edited the themed collection The Political Brain for the Royal Society. To learn more, please visit You can also email Dr Zmigrod at