Our world is shaping up to be one filled with extreme opinions and polarizing beliefs. This is forming numerous divisions in society.

In the world of politics, extreme views, partisan thinking, and dogmatism can get real ugly. It can potentially sow discord or even perpetuate violence.

At some point, you might have thought that it is quite impossible to form a united front. What exactly is causing this irrational ideological adherence we see at present?

In the work of  Zmigrod et.al, we can find some answers. In their study, they have shown that this rise of radical views is associated with one factor affecting how we process information.

This factor is known as cognitive flexibility — in other words — mental rigidity.

What is mental rigidity?

Mental rigidity is characterized by:

  • The desire to be right all the time
  • The belief that there is only one way to do things
  • The assumption that the only correct perspective is what the self considers to be right
  • Difficulty to change their ways of thinking
  • Difficulty to adapt to new environments

This tendency can be seen as a form of psychological defense. Truly enough, the notion of something you believed in for so long being false is a hard pill to swallow.

Zmigrod also noted that strong adherence to ideologies provides a sense of “clarity, certainty, and safety.”

In their study, Zmigrod and his peers conducted a series of online psychological tests to measure the cognitive flexibility as well as their attachment to their political beliefs.

The study involving 743 participants revealed that there is an association between the attachment of a participant to their preferred political party and their cognitive flexibility.

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The association is strong enough for the attachment of a participant to their political party to be a strong predictor of a participant’s cognitive flexibility.

They found that the self-described Independents are more cognitively flexible in contrast to those who described themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

Opening up

With this, Zmigrod and her peers have shown that being cognitively inflexible can lead to adopting extreme world views.

However, Zmigrod also mentioned that cognitive flexibility is something we can acquire by being trained and educated.

Perhaps, this is where we should start — developing societies which hone the flexibility of the mind. We should teach our children to grow, to understand others, to connect, and to embrace mistakes and uncertainty. We ourselves should not be so resistant to change and differing views.

As French writer and Nobel laureate André Gide puts it, “there are many things that seem impossible only so long as one does not attempt them.”

What we have on our plate is not an impossible situation — it’s one which demands the determination of man to change for the better.

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