Those bombastic self-appointed spokespersons who rant from both the political right and left are likely driven by the conviction that their extreme views are shared by the majority of the members of their political party, but they probably are wrong, according to new research.
The research, conducted over several years at Stanford University and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests that the conviction that they speak for the masses is critical to their decision to shout out their opinions, regardless of how polarizing they may be.
"We are arguing that one of possibly many reasons people express their opinions is the perception that they are more popular than they really are," co-author Kimberly Rios Morrison said in a telephone interview.
Morrison, who is now with Ohio State University in Columbus, conducted a series of studies with psychologist Dale Miller of Stanford on the role of self perception in political extremism.
The research addresses a question that has not received a great deal of attention in the research community. Why are the loudest political voices we hear coming from the most extreme sources? What compels these people to demand center stage, even if their views are rejected by moderate members of their own party?
As is always the case in human behavior, there are probably a variety of answers to those questions. Morrison's own research also suggests that some extremists are probably driven by insecurity, and others are driven by a belief that they alone can lead us out of the wilderness.
"If we feel like our sense of self and who we are is threatened, we may be more likely to deviate from the majority because we want to establish ourselves and be unique," she said. On the other hand, "there are people who are really certain the attitudes they hold are correct, and they are most likely to express their opinions" even if most of their colleagues would disagree.
But the research she and Miller conducted suggests that a key ingredient in the creation of a highly vocal political extremist is the belief that the unwashed masses share the same view, even if they don't.
The two carried out their research at a time when Stanford was embroiled in controversy. The university prohibited alcohol in common areas of freshman dorms, leading to heated arguments, as might be expected. Students participating in three different studies were asked to rate themselves as pro, moderate, or anti-alcohol.
"There's this stereotype that college students are very pro-alcohol, and even most college students believe it," Morrison said. But "most students think of themselves as less pro-alcohol than average."
Students rated themselves on a scale of 1 (very opposed) to 9 (very strongly in favor) and were asked if they would be willing to express themselves publicly. Perhaps not surprisingly, students who were really in favor of booze were most willing to speak out.
But was that because they thought most of their fellow students agreed?