Study: ‘Mental rigidity’ the root cause of political polarization in United States

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Divisiveness in the United States may be at an all-time high as voters look ahead to the presidential election in 2020. Americans may be admittedly stressed out from all the political angst, but they’re still not open to budging from their platforms or even so much as listening to what the other side has to say. Now, a recent study finds this “mental rigidity” is the root cause of political partisanship and increased polarization, and could be fueling similar phenomena in the United Kingdom and other countries.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge define mental rigidity as when people who identify with a certain political party or ideology display low levels of cognitive flexibility. In other words, voters hold to their party’s beliefs so tightly that it’s nearly impossible for them to change their mindset, no matter the environment. Signs of mental rigidity were particularly strong in those who leaned the farthest left or right on the political spectrum.

The findings show that the basic mental processes that control our ability to move back and forth between different concepts and tasks are associated with the intensity with which we attach ourselves to political standings and doctrines, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum.

“Relative to political moderates, participants who indicated extreme attachment to either the Democratic or Republican Party exhibited mental rigidity on multiple objective neuropsychological tests,” explains lead author Dr. Leor Zmigrod in a university release. “While political animosity often appears to be driven by emotion, we find that the way people unconsciously process neutral stimuli seems to play an important role in how they process ideological arguments.”

For the study, Dr. Zmigrod and his team recruited 743 men and women of differing ages and educational backgrounds and differing political beliefs. Participants completed three psychological tests: a word association game, a card-sorting test by color, shape, and number, and an exercise in which participants must imagine possible uses for everyday objects in two minutes. They were asked to score their feelings about hot-button political issues in the U.S. such as abortion, welfare, and marriage rights.

In addition to finding that the farther to the right or left on the political spectrum individuals are, the less cognitively flexible they are, the researchers also found that political moderates had the most cognitive flexibility.

“The aim of this research is not to draw false equivalences between different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies. We want to highlight the common psychological factors that shape how people come to hold extreme views and identities,” says Zmigrod. “Past studies have shown that it is possible to cultivate cognitive flexibility through training and education. Our findings raise the question of whether heightening our cognitive flexibility might help build more tolerant societies, and even develop antidotes to radicalization.

“While the conservatism and liberalism of our beliefs may at times divide us, our capacity to think about the world flexibly and adaptively can unite us,” she added.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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