Cognitive Inflexibility and Political Ideologies

Just about everyone these days has That Relative. You know the one, the one with the extreme, radical political viewpoints that are always the exact opposite of your own political beliefs, and they just won’t shut up about them in the middle of Thanksgiving? This relative is also of course very, very loud, and is incredibly rigid and extreme in everything that comes up, every action and decision and topic, not just politics. You know the one.

Well, it turns out that there is a reason for your relative’s inflexibility! A recent study has found that people with extreme partisanship and radical political views are more cognitively rigid. Cognitive rigidity is defined as “difficulty changing mental sets,” and cognitively rigid people have trouble “switching from thinking about things one way to thinking about them a different way” (

James Coplan, MD

There are two facets to political ideology: direction and extremity. Direction refers to whether your political views are more right-leaning or more left-leaning, while extremity refers to how strongly you uphold some of these viewpoints, and how far they stray from the center viewpoint.

Image result for political spectrum

A recent study conducted by Zmigrod, Rentfrow, and Robbins compared how political direction and political extremity affects cognition. They had two theories to test: the ideological extremity hypothesis and the rigidity-of-the-right hypothesis. The ideological extremity hypothesis states that political extremists, no matter the direction of their beliefs, are more cognitively rigid than political moderates. The rigidity-of-the-right hypothesis states that conservatives are more cognitively rigid than liberals due to their categorical view of the world (

As many previous studies on this material relied on self-reporting, Zmigrod, Rentfrow, and Robbins took a different approach. They decided to use objective cognitive assessments and then analyze the result so as to prevent personal bias coming into play. Participants were first asked to report their political affiliations and take quizzes, including the Dynamic Identity Fusion Index and Social and Economic Conservatism Scale. They were then asked to complete several cognitive flexibility tests, including the Remote Associations Test, Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, and Alternative Uses Test, to objectively assess their cognitive flexibility and rigidity (

The study did not find any difference between Democrats and Republicans on the cognitive flexibility tests, and thus the experimenters ruled out any relationship between political direction and cognitive rigidity. However, the study did find significant difference in the test results between those with high levels of partisanship, regardless of direction, and those with low levels of partisanship. The test results showed that the participants with higher levels of political extremity had much less cognitive rigidity than more moderate participants. These results are in support of the ideological extremity hypothesis, but not in support of the rigidity-of-the-right hypothesis (

I think that this study is very interesting, particularly due to its relevance to today’s political climate and current events. I certainly appreciate that the researchers were thorough and tested participants about both their political ideologies and their cognitive flexibility, rather than simply having them self-report, as I think that testing them adds more accountability and relativity. I think that this study very neatly covered the concept of cognitive flexibility, and the tying of the concept to politics could maybe even change how people of different political viewpoints see themselves and each other.



5 thoughts on “Cognitive Inflexibility and Political Ideologies

  1. dzuleta

    Perhaps people also have a bias of people with opposing beliefs, that they are the ones who are unable to change mental states when in reality they could also be. The family relative who shouts at thanksgiving dinner is one I know all too well, and frankly I am dreading this coming thanksgiving specifically because of that. It seems as though they refuse to have a productive conversation to hear another person’s argument and instead want to impose their own beliefs. I used to think this was just how some parties acted but I have been able to meet people from both left leaning and right leaning sides that are open to discussion and perhaps even be enlightened on something they did not know about before. I think the study mentioned is interesting in how there was no significant difference between parties and cognitive flexibility.

  2. msuprise

    I wonder if age can be an additional variable in the relationship between cognitive rigidity and political ideals. “That Relative” that I am thinking of, well actually a couple of them that I am thinking of, are all relatively older so that makes me think there can be some correlation there. I definitely think that our cognition and our brains are more flexible when we are younger, so this decline in flexibility and plasticity over time could possibly lead to cognitive rigidity in those who are older.

    1. Emily Beitzell

      I think that is a really good point. Everyone that came to my mind when reading this post are older adults. I think there is a tendency to become more set in your ways as you age. But does your cognition actually change, or are younger people just more willing to expand their viewpoint? I would love to look at more research on this to see if there is actually a change that occurs.

  3. Mala

    I found this blog very relatable because I have a relative who happens to be my Dad who has a very strong opinion about his political ideologies. It’s often hard for him to change his views and it takes a lot of effort from another person to challenge his views. It can be exhausting at times which is why the majority of the time I don’t other voicing my opinion around him when it comes to politics.

  4. haeason

    I have two relatives like that, my uncle and my cousin, and…. *drum roll*… he is a republican and she is a democrat. Thankfully there haven’t been any explosions recently, and also we don’t have thanksgiving with them, but I will have to walk on glass at Christmas time. Being around family is … such a joy sometimes. Its sort of funny that there’s no difference on either side because the cognitively rigid ones always think the other side is cognitively rigid and they aren’t, if that makes sense? Blowing up because the other side won’t listen when they aren’t listening either.

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