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Psychol Sci. 2013 Jun;24(6):939-46. doi: 10.1177/0956797612464058. Epub 2013 Apr 25.

Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding.

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Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0419, USA.


People often hold extreme political attitudes about complex policies. We hypothesized that people typically know less about such policies than they think they do (the illusion of explanatory depth) and that polarized attitudes are enabled by simplistic causal models. Asking people to explain policies in detail both undermined the illusion of explanatory depth and led to attitudes that were more moderate (Experiments 1 and 2). Although these effects occurred when people were asked to generate a mechanistic explanation, they did not occur when people were instead asked to enumerate reasons for their policy preferences (Experiment 2). Finally, generating mechanistic explanations reduced donations to relevant political advocacy groups (Experiment 3). The evidence suggests that people's mistaken sense that they understand the causal processes underlying policies contributes to political polarization.


attitudes; causal models; causality; decision making; explanation; extremism; illusion of explanatory depth; judgment; mechanism; moderation; polarization; policymaking; political psychology; public policy

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