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Could Extreme Political Partisanship be More Closely Related to Cognitive Inflexibility than to any Specific Ideology?

Posted September 19, 2019

The authors of a new paper out in the Journal of Experimental Psychology emphasise that when it comes to partisanship, direction (e.g., which particular set of political beliefs a person holds) should always be assessed together with extremity, or how rigidly a person believes what he or she happens to believe.

Whereas, back in the 1950s, social critics, such as the philosopher Eric Hoffer (of the The True Believer fame), believed that people who endorse extreme political views typically do so because of low self-esteem and personal frustration, Leor Zmigrod and his colleagues have shown that partisanship could be more closely related to cognitive rigidity.

In the study, the authors enlisted 750 U.S. citizens to complete a set of neuropsychological tests to measure their cognitive rigidity – i.e., the tendency to react to objects and stimuli in black-and-white terms, and the difficulty to switch between modes of thinking – and then correlated the results with the subjects’ attachment to the U.S. Democratic or Republic Party.

As predicted, those with the strongest feelings about their political beliefs also had the most rigid cognitive profiles, suggesting that extreme partisanship is at least in part determined at the most fundamental level of perception and cognition.

Whether left- or right-wing, people’s steadfast political leanings strongly correlate with cognitive rigidity, although it’s not yet clear whether the latter is causative or is itself caused by partisanship. Image: OpenClipart-Vectors via, CC0 Public Domain

Given the above findings, there remains a key question – is mental rigidity the cause or the outcome of partisanship? According to the authors, if we were to follow the lead of most other complex problems, the answer is likely “yes”, i.e., the relationship between the two probably goes both ways.

If it’s cognitive rigidity that’s gumming up our political landscape – we’re in luck (sort of), because there are plenty of studies to support the idea that education and training can be highly effective at loosening up our inflexible cognitive habits.

With the truth of the above remaining to be seen, Zmigrod ends his article published in The Conversation on a positive note: “Is it time for an age of plasticity to replace the age of partisanship? Only if we learn to recognise that, despite the differences that sit on the outside, we are more similar than we think within”.


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