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?
Maybe, according to one of the studies. In that study the students were given fake data indicating that many Stanford students held conservative, anti-alcohol views. Pro-alcohol participants who were confronted with evidence that they were likely in the minority were far less likely to voice their opinions, let alone shout them from the rooftops.
That study suggests that highly vocal proponents of alcohol needed to believe they were speaking for the majority to take a public stand. It's not enough to be right. You've also got to have broad support from the so-called "silent majority."
Morrison said she believes the findings apply beyond the college campus, and the same need for moral support among one's peers is essential in many fields, including politics.
Other research suggests that bombastic political rhetoric may strengthen the role of an extremist by discouraging more moderate voices. Andrew Hayes, a colleague of Morrison's at Ohio State, found in a separate study that persons who are reluctant to express their opinions are easily intimated.
"In a polarized, hostile political climate some people decide not to participate because they're afraid of the social ramifications of doing anything that might reveal their opinion to others," Hayes said in releasing his study.
That, of course, would reinforce an extremist's belief that he or she is reflecting a majority opinion since so few are speaking out in opposition.
It's probably safe to assume, however, that the volume is being turned up in political rhetoric these days largely because of an ancient human drive. As my column pointed out last week, insecurity can drive a person to extreme limits, even to the abuse of coworkers. Maybe that's what drives so many political extremists these days.
Maybe they are just bullies.