Cognitive flexibility rides again

The article below revives a very old tale.  It originated in a book called "The authoritarian personality" published in 1950 under the lead authorship of prominent Marxist theoretician Theodor Wiesengrund (AKA Adorno).  The story was that conservatives are rigid thinkers, prone to oversimplified categories and generally unable to think straight.  Since almost all psychologists are Leftist, the story was wildly popular and generated much research based on it.  I had a lot of articles published which pointed out holes in that research.

As early as 1954, however, it emerged that the supposed measures of rigid/flexible thinking correlated very poorly with one another. In one popular measure, the Budner scale, I found that the supposedly positive and negative items of the scale were totally uncorrelated with one-another.  The conclusion had to be that there was no such thing as cognitive flexibility -- as the various alleged measures of it disagreed with one another.

Whenever it was examined, however, they showed a correlation with IQ, suggesting that they were all just clumsy measures of IQ and should therefore be either abandoned or used only in conjunction with an IQ measure. So the various correlations found with flexibility/rigidity were in fact correlations with IQ.

And that very well explains the findings below.  The heavy Brexit vote came from generally depressed centres in Northern England which would have had few bright sparks left there.  Smart people in England gravitate to London.  And it was the London vote which  was most pro-EU.  So the most probable explanation of the findings below is simply that it confirms the well-known IQ gradient from the big city towards rural areas.  The interpretations the authors put on the findings simply reflect their own intentions and prejudices.  The correlates with "flexibility" were in fact correlates of IQ.

Interpreting that, however, would be a whole new story.  Why are Brexit opponents dumber?  Probably because of a third factor. Probably because the EU really is bad for areas where poor people live.

The academic journal abstract is appended to the summary immediately below

The Cambridge Analytica scandals have made it obvious that some people’s votes can be predicted and manipulated by knowing their emotional triggers. But new research suggests that the way people think, in apparently unemotional ways, is also a reliable predictor of political attitudes, and in particular, of nationalism and enthusiasm for Brexit.

Leor Zmigrod, a Cambridge University psychologist, set out to investigate whether a preference for clear categories in thought mapped on to a preference for clear national boundaries and precise, exclusionary definitions of citizenship. Instead of relying on self-reported habits of thought, as previous surveys have done, she had participants (who were not students) take part in some standard psychological tests. One of them tested how easy it is for participants to adapt to changes in the rules of the game they are playing; the other is a test of the ability to associate words and ideas across different contexts, so that it works as a measurement of cognitive flexibility, or woolly-mindedness, as the more rigid would no doubt say.

Even with a reasonably small sample of about 330, the differences that appeared were large and startling. In particular, her team found that less cognitive flexibility correlated strongly with “positive feelings toward Brexit and negative feelings toward immigration, the European Union, and free movement of labour”. This not to say that there is anything abnormal about people on either side of the question. There is a lot of normal variation in temperament and imagination among perfectly healthy and sane people, even those who disagree with us. But it is still extraordinary to think that some political differences can quite reliably be traced to cognitive ones which seem to have no connection with politics at all.

One of the strongest links was between cognitive flexibility, as measured by these two tests, and disagreement with Theresa May’s statement that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere”.

These cognitive styles do not work directly on attitudes to Brexit, says Zmigrod. They predispose people to wider ideological attitudes, and those in turn determine the attitudes people took to the referendum. And the test results she found work differently to each other: in particular, nationalism and authoritarianism were very strongly predicted by a preference for fixed rules and categories, whereas political conservatism (as self-reported) was influenced by an inability to take words out of familiar contexts and make fresh connections between them (which the second test measures).

Nonetheless, the correlation between the style in which people think and the way that they voted was very much stronger than any of the other factors in the sample: controlling for class, age and sex only changed the results by 4%, although there was a strong, and possibly related, correlation with the length of time in education.

“The way the brain constructs internal boundaries between conceptual representations and adapts to changes in environmental contingencies has been shown here to be linked to individuals’ desire for external boundaries to be imposed on national entities and for greater homogeneity in their cultural environment. Information-processing styles in relation to perceptual and linguistic stimuli may also be drawn upon when dealing with political and ideological information,” she writes.

What this suggests to me is that some kinds of political argument are going to be literally interminable. Obviously this isn’t true of any particular issue. Even the question of our relations with Europe will be settled some time before the heat death of the universe. But it may be replaced by something else which arouses the same passions and splits the population in the same way, because the cognitive traits she is analysing are all part of the normal variation of humanity.

Despite what you learn on the internet, the people who disagree with you about Brexit do not all have something terrible wrong with their brains. Progress is not necessarily on our side. Nor is it even on the other side. One of the underlying tendencies of political argument at the moment is that both left and right expect the other side to be proved conclusively wrong by history – either to be swept away by progress or to be destroyed by the return of traditional reality. But if ideologies arise in part from differences in cognitive style which are evenly distributed through the population, the war between progress and reaction will continue for as long as humanity does.


Cognitive underpinnings of nationalistic ideology in the context of Brexit

Leor Zmigrod, Peter J. Rentfrow and Trevor W. Robbins


Nationalistic identities often play an influential role in citizens’ voting behavior and political engagement. Nationalistic ideologies tend to have firm categories and rules for what belongs to and represents the national culture. In a sample of 332 UK citizens, we tested whether strict categorization of stimuli and rules in objective cognitive tasks would be evident in strongly nationalistic individuals. Using voting behavior and attitudes from the United Kingdom’s 2016 EU referendum, we found that a flexible representation of national identity and culture was linked to cognitive flexibility in the ideologically neutral Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and Remote Associates Test, and to self-reported flexibility under uncertainty. Path analysis revealed that subjective and objective cognitive inflexibility predicted heightened authoritarianism, nationalism, conservatism, and system justification, and these in turn were predictive of support for Brexit and opposition to immigration, the European Union, and free movement of labor. This model accounted for 47.6% of the variance in support for Brexit. Path analysis models were also predictive of participants’ sense of personal attachment to the United Kingdom, signifying that individual differences in cognitive flexibility may contribute toward ideological thinking styles that shape both nationalistic attitudes and personal sense of nationalistic identity. These findings further suggest that emotionally neutral “cold” cognitive information processing—and not just “hot” emotional cognition—may play a key role in ideological behavior and identity.


UPDATE:  A reader has sent in a comment on why London people voted so strongly against BREXIT:

Now, I can think of a much more cogent reason: London is foreign. It is the one place in the sceptred isle where the indigenous population, the so-called "white British" are marginally in a minority. The others are not necessarily black or brown, but they hail from somewhere else - especially Europe.

Indeed, I might add an anecdote of my own. Last year, I spoke to a guard outside a major hotel in London, and discovered that he worked for a company which provided guards. I then said, "I could tell you weren't employed by the hotel, because you have a British accent. There seems to be some rule that nobody who works for a major hotel can be native born."

"You're not the first person to make that comment," he replied. (To be fair, the hotel staff were very helpful and efficient.)

The majority "Remain" vote came from Scotland and SE England. The heartland of England voted for Brexit just as the heartland of the US voted for Bush. In fact, the two best predictors for Brexit were:

Age, Older people (who remembered what it was like to be independent) were more likely to vote for Brexit.

Englishness. People were asked whether they considered themselves (say) more English than British, more British than English, British but not English etc. The more they self-identified as English, the more likely they were to vote for Brexit.

Incidentally, they were more likely to vote for Brexit if they self-identified as Anglican, even if they didn't attend church. The established church is part of their English identity, whereas many Roman Catholics and, of course, non-Christians, have affiliations outside the UK.

Also, it was pointed out that, in many market towns, the local church has a central social function irrespective of its spiritual function - something I've noted on British TV.


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