Professor Philip Fernbach to Research the Cognitive Basis of Extremism

Published: Feb. 13, 2017
Healthier Debate

Philip Fernbach, Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Leeds School of Business, received a $165,000 fellowship grant to conduct a two-year research project examining the question “What makes us argue so heatedly over things we know so little about?” His project, The Cognitive Basis of Extremism, will explore how we can improve public discourse not by turning laypeople into experts, but rather by making people aware of the causes of extremism and ignorance.

The innovative nature and cultural relevancy of Fernbach’s research area is illustrated in the competitive nature of this grant: only eight percent of the grant applications were chosen for funding. Other projects receiving funding address questions like “Are religious convictions incompatible with intellectual humility?”, “Which online platforms best foster public discourse and how can we improve them?”, and “Can people become more receptive to expert opinion?”

As part of The Humility and Conviction Project, Fernbach’s work is one of ten innovative research projects that, according to the project’s website, “explore the broken landscape of American discourse and create enduring strategies to spur and sustain open-minded, reasonable, and well-informed debate and dialogue.” Intended to balance two key features of democracy, intellectual humility and conviction of belief, the selected projects were chosen for their individual merits as well as for their complimenting themes investigating how networks and institutions meant to connect us may be pushing people apart. In his proposal, Fernbach suggests that "the intelligence required to understand and act on important social policy questions resides not in any one individual but in a community of knowledge. Improving public discourse is not a matter of better instruction in an effort to turn laypeople into experts, but rather making people aware of their ignorance and of the locus of expertise in the community."

The Humility and Conviction Project is hosted by the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute which sponsors public engagement and interdisciplinary research with the goal of applying the research to bring about positive changes for public discourse. The project defines intellectual humility as “involving the owning of one’s cognitive limitations, a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others, and low concern for intellectual domination and certain kinds of social status.”

Dr. Fernbach is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Leeds School of Business. He holds a PhD from Brown University in cognitive science and a BA from Williams College where he studied philosophy. His research interests span many areas of consumer behavior including causal reasoning, probability judgment, financial decision-making, and moral judgment. For this project, Professor Fernbach’s research team will include Dr. Steven Sloman, Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University.

Associated links:

Humility & Conviction Project Site

Humility & Conviction Grant Awards Site

About Dr. Philip Fernbach