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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

November 2019: The level of cognitive flexibility in humans influences how people process stimuli and shape their ability to find compromise. Designing training and education strategies that enhance cognitive flexibility may contribute to combatting radicalisation and extreme partisanship on both ends of the political spectrum.

Information

A recent study finds that low levels of cognitive flexibility are associated with fervent political beliefs, identities, and affiliations at the far ends of the political spectrum. Using psychological testing, the researchers identified that ‘mental rigidity’ as a prominent psychological trait impedes people’s ability to change their way of thinking or to adapt to new environments. The findings contrast common beliefs that political animosity is predominantly driven by emotions and suggest that the mental ability to process neutral stimuli may be of equal importance when processing ideological arguments. In addition, the researchers find that other cognitive traits – such as fluency of thought – were unrelated to heightened political partisanship; thus, emphasising the contribution of cognitive inflexibility.

Implications & Opportunities

The work suggests that assessing ‘mental rigidity’ may help identify people at risk of more extreme attitudes with regards to religiosity, nationalism, and a willingness to endorse violence and/or to sacrifice one’s life for an ideological group. Identifying common psychological factors that underpin dogmatism and strict ideological adherence may inform training and education programmes that cultivate cognitive flexibility. Such training may help policy makers in combating radicalization, building more flexible and tolerant societies, and bridging political divides. However, research that may open avenues that can influence political allegiances and associated behaviours is contentious and raises many ethical questions. 

Limitations

The study is a pioneering study and its results are a primary assessment of mental rigidity; thus, the findings should be seen as preliminary. More research is needed to explore whether reducing cognitive rigidity would cause people become more amenable to compromise.


Sources

Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, J., Robbins, T., (2019). The partisan mind: Is Extreme Political Partisanship Related to Cognitive Inflexibility? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Financial Times. (2019). In the Age of Populism, Rigid Minds Are Attracted by Extremes. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/c3b7486a-d2eb-11e9-8d46-8def889b4137