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Susceptible to dogmatism? New research suggests cognitive science can illuminate ideological extremism

Dr Leor Zmigrod is examining whether ideological extremism has neurocognitive roots.

- 3 minute read
Dr Leor Zmigrod
Dr Leor Zmigrod

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that human history was sculpted by two fundamental forces: the rise of science and technology and the “great ideological storms”, including the “totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and the explosions of nationalism, racism and…religious bigotry”. Fast-forward to the present day and we still feel the whips and scorns of these ideologically tumultuous times.

So why are we, as societies and individuals, seduced by these ideologies? The answer may lie (at least in part) with our brains.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I considered the current US political climate, and hypothesised that rigidity and extremity might emerge from a psychological tendency to process information in rigid and inflexible ways.

An individual who is cognitively rigid tends to perceive objects and stimuli in black-and-white terms. This categorical way of evaluating information will make it difficult for them to switch between modes of thinking or to adapt to changing environments. Cognitive rigidity and flexibility are unconscious traits, meaning that we need to use specialised implicit neuropsychological tasks to quantify who tends towards rigidity and who towards flexibility.

We reasoned that individuals with a tendency towards cognitive rigidity in how they perceive and react to the world generally might be more likely to be rigid about their political beliefs and identities as well.

We invited 750 US citizens to complete tests that allowed us to measure their individual levels of cognitive rigidity. We found that individuals who were extremely attached to a political party (whether Democrat or Republican) displayed greater mental rigidity relative to those who were only moderately or weakly attached.  In fact, regardless of the content of their political beliefs (whether left- or right-wing), extreme partisans had a similar cognitive profile. This suggests that the intensity with which we attach ourselves to political doctrines may reflect and shape the way our mind works, even at the basic levels of perception and cognition.

While our political beliefs may at times divide us, our capacity to think about the world flexibly and adaptively can unite us

Across a range of studies, we have found that perceptual and cognitive rigidity predicts UK citizens’ attitudes towards Brexit, as well as individuals’ levels of dogmatism, religiosity, and their willingness to endorse violence to protect their ideological groups. Mental rigidity may therefore make us more easily seduced by extreme ideologies across a multitude of domains, such as politics, nationalism and religion.

These results prompt many questions about the relationship between our brains and our politics. The first is a question of causality: does engagement with an extreme ideology lead to mental rigidity? Or does cognitive inflexibility foster a proclivity towards ideological extremism? We might also consider whether these findings can help us counter some of the negative aspects of living in an era of polarisation, extremism and misinformation. One of the neat properties of cognitive flexibility is that it is, in itself, malleable. Studies have shown that training can improve our capacity to switch between different styles of thinking and adapt our behaviour in the face of change and uncertainty. Would heightening our flexibility help us to build more tolerant and less dogmatic societies?

The emergence of new fields such as political neuroscience and the cognitive science of ideology suggest that we can harness the power of the scientific method to study the nature of the intoxicating ideologies that have shaped our past and continue to structure our present. This endeavour reveals that, while our political beliefs may at times divide us, our capacity to think about the world flexibly and adaptively can unite us. Extremity in either direction can lead us to see the world in black and white and forget to appreciate those crucial shades of grey in between.

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