Recent research found a strong connection between social rigidity and cognitive rigidity, suggesting that inflexible thinking in one area tends to be associated with inflexible thinking in another. The study, published in Psychological Research, provides evidence that people who embrace rigid political and social attitudes tend to perform worse on tests of problem-solving abilities.
Previous research has suggested a connection between different forms of social rigidity and a rigid cognitive style of reasoning. However, there were discrepancies in the literature regarding how cognitive style was defined and measured. Many studies relied on self-report questionnaires and qualitative measures rather than objective tests assessing cognitive functions. Therefore, the researchers aimed to use objective cognitive tasks to assess cognitive flexibility and explore its relationship with social rigidity.
“We believe that people who are creative and good problem-solvers are also open-minded,” said study author Carola Salvi, a psychology professor at the John Cabot University of Rome and associate faculty at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
“We can see the reflection of people’s flexible thinking in a variety of applications. For example, when we are looking for a solution to a math problem, but also when we reason on social issues. Is there a link between these two aspects of human thinking? In this study, we investigated what it means to be a ‘flexible thinker.'”
“Since Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, sociologists and psychologists have postulated that right-wing attitudes are associated with a ‘strict’ cognitive style,” Salvi explained. “However, most of the research in cognitive and social psychology focused either on pure cognitive and content-free reasoning or used self-reported questionnaires on social reasoning but hardly ever linked the two.”
To conduct the new study, an online survey was administered in Italy and the United States. Participants were recruited through email, social media platforms, and psychology and creativity websites. A total of 525 participants completed the survey and were included in the analyses. The sample consisted of 378 women, 145 men, and 2 participants who self-reported as other or undisclosed. The average age of the participants was 38 years.
The survey included various measures to assess different aspects of cognitive rigidity, social rigidity, and related constructs.
To assess cognitive rigidity, participants completed two problem-solving tasks: the rebus puzzle task and a selection of problems from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). The rebus task required participants to solve puzzles by providing a common phrase as a response (For example, the answer to the rebus puzzle “/R/E/A/D/I/N/G/” is “Reading between the lines.”) The CRT problems were designed to induce an immediate incorrect response — in other words, it tested the proclivity to “go with your gut” rather than thinking through a problem.
Social rigidity, referred to as socio-cognitive polarization, was measured using several scales. Conservatism was assessed by asking participants to rate their level of agreement with statements related to conservative and liberal political ideologies. Absolutism, which reflects intolerance of ambiguity, was measured using a scale that asked participants to rate their tolerance versus intolerance of ambiguous stimuli. Xenophobia, specifically fear and hostility towards immigrants, was assessed using a scale that measured agreement with statements related to immigrants and their impact.
In addition to the measures of cognitive and social rigidity, the researchers also included measures of bullshit receptivity and overclaiming. Bullshit receptivity was assessed using the Bullshit Receptivity Questionnaire, which asked participants to rate the meaningfulness and profundity of pseudo-profound statements. Overclaiming, the tendency to overrate one’s familiarity with general knowledge, was measured using a questionnaire that asked participants to rate their familiarity with various factual and made-up notions.
The researchers found that those who scored high in socio-cognitive polarization (characterized by high levels of conservatism, absolutism, and xenophobia) exhibited lower performance on the problem-solving tasks. This indicates that their social rigidity was associated with their cognitive rigidity, even in the absence of political content. Similar findings were observed among those with higher degrees of bullshit receptivity and overclaiming.
“This is the first one in a series of studies where we look at parallelisms between cognitive and social rigidity,” Salvi told PsyPost. “Rigidity in human reasoning may occur under a wide range of contexts. We connected two diverse fields of research in psychology in this work, demonstrating that social rigidity predicts cognitive rigidity in problem-solving. Our findings imply that rigid thinking extends beyond formal political beliefs to a more holistic reasoning style that incorporates features of rigidity like problem-solving, but also xenophobia and absolutism.”
“This outcome contains characteristics that are frequently connected with polarized political ideologies, such as bullshit susceptibility (i.e., overestimating pseudo-profound statements) and overclaiming. The Latent Profiles Analysis performed revealed that those low in socio-cognitive polarization, bullshit receptivity, and overclaiming performed the best on measures of problem-solving. Therefore, we argued that social rigidity may be shared by an underlying socio-cognitive construct, wherein those who are more socially rigid are more likely to be cognitively rigid as well.”
The researchers noted that being a good problem solver requires the ability to overcome rigid perspectives, seek alternative reasoning paths, and tolerate ambiguity. They argued that this thinking skill is reflected in other forms of social reasoning, such as being open-minded and questioning established norms. In contrast, individuals with high social rigidity tend to be less flexible in their thinking, which hinders their problem-solving abilities.
“Solving a problem implies seeing things from a different perspective,” Salvi said. “Take for example the classic nine-dots problem. People are simply asked to connect these 9 dots with four straight and continuous lines.”
“While it appears trivial, this problem is very difficult for people, unless they overcome the initial representation of the problem as a square. A similar reasoning happens when we deal with everyday social content. Some people keep looking at the nine dots and see a square and by embracing the status quo they never solve the problem.”
“However, others (who are more cognitively flexible) overcome the initial representation of the nine dots as a square and solve the problem. (They literally think outside the box!) In our study, we find that this simple skill transfers to social reasoning and helps us to view social problems in new light,” Salvi told PsyPost.
Interestingly, the researchers found a subgroup of individuals with low socio-cognitive polarization but high bullshit receptivity and high overclaiming. In other words, these individuals embraced liberal ideologies but were also susceptible to believing in pseudo-profound statements and overestimating their knowledge. They also performed poorly on problem-solving tasks.
“These individuals appear to be on the fence between being tolerant and perhaps overly receptive and credulous,” Salvi explained. “What we discovered leads us to believe that this inclination toward bullshit receptivity and overclaiming is due to pseudo-flexibility, as those allocated to this profile also scored worse on problem-solving than those assigned to the low socio-cognitive polarization and low bullshit receptivity and overclaiming profiles.”
But there is still a need for further research to understand the specific mechanisms that underlie the link between social and cognitive rigidity. It is unclear how social rigidity leads to cognitive rigidity or what other cognitive processes are involved in this relationship.
“Our findings show a direct parallelism between social and cognitive rigidity; nevertheless, additional study is required to speculate on the underlying unitary processes of this impact,” Salvi said.
The study, “Does social rigidity predict cognitive rigidity? Profiles of socio-cognitive polarization“, was authored by Carola Salvi, Paola Iannello, Alice Cancer, Samuel E. Cooper, Mason McClay, Joseph E. Dunsmoor, and Alessandro Antonietti.