Rioting in support of Trump: How our way of thinking can lead to polarized beliefs

What can psychology tell us about how people come to hold rigid, polarized beliefs?

This post is also available in Dutch.

As we ponder the recent U.S. election, one thing has become clear: The American electorate is highly polarized. That is, the gap between people at the two ends of the political spectrum is widening, to the point that they don’t even agree on the same set of facts. Right now, a clear example of this gap is President Trump and his supporters refusing to accept the reality of his loss. However, the radical thinking that can lead to polarization is not only a right-wing problem: both liberals and conservatives will choose facts that support their position, even when they are incorrect.

The end result of polarization is that it is impossible for people with different views to get along, and they are much less capable of constructively solving problems. How do we get on this path? And how can we change course?

Many factors contribute to polarization, but here I will focus on the level of the individual: What makes people more likely to hold the rigid, radical beliefs that contribute to polarization? In a recent paper, Max Rollwage and colleagues suggest that we need to look deeper than just at what a person thinks, and instead focus on how they think.

Generic patterns of thinking may influence our political views

According to this approach, we need to learn more about the basic patterns of thinking that make people more likely to develop and hold radical beliefs. These patterns of thinking are generic, which means that they are not specific to particular political positions, but rather relate to how people process information at a more basic level.

Two examples of these generic patterns of thinking are the concepts of metacognition and cognitive flexibility:

Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking – our ability to reflect on our own thought processes. If we are able to accurately think about our own decision making, we can learn from our mistakes and change our mind when we are wrong. Because people with radical beliefs are often very resistant to updating their beliefs, even when confronted with information that challenges them, researchers looked into whether metacognition could be related to radical beliefs. They had participants carry out a simple, non-political task of judging the number of dots on a screen and then asked them how confident they had been in their decisions. Participants who held radical political beliefs were worse at judging how accurate their decisions were, and were also less likely to re-think their judgment of accuracy when given more information. In another study, participants who held dogmatic beliefs, including some on both the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, were less likely to seek more information that could improve their accuracy on a neutral task.

Cognitive flexibility is our ability to “think outside the box”, as well as  the ability to adapt our thinking when a situation changes. One study looked at whether cognitive inflexibility could contribute to people holding rigid nationalistic beliefs about Brexit, with the rationale that this inflexibility could make people more susceptible to holding a narrow, nationalistic view of what it means to be British. They indeed found that people who showed less cognitive flexibility on tasks completely unrelated to politics or ideology held more authoritarian and nationalistic beliefs, and were in turn more likely to support Brexit.

These two examples show how generic cognitive processes could play a role in whether we hold radical beliefs. It is important to note, however, that this work is correlational and still in an early stage, so we need more research to find out if these patterns contribute to people acquiring radical beliefs in the first place.

What can we do about it?

If we understand the thought processes that lead to polarized views, we can then begin to increase awareness and find ways to modify them. For example, if we have evidence that metacognitive failures or cognitive inflexibility contribute, we could try to improve these abilities. One study has already shown promise for improving metacognitive abilities.

This approach of looking at generic patterns of thinking is especially useful because it can help us understand the formation of any kind of rigid or dogmatic belief and does not target a particular group. Alongside work on broader social, educational, and media systems, understanding the minds of people who hold radical beliefs is an important piece of the puzzle for combatting polarization and bringing people together.  

Further Reading:

This is why we stick to false beliefs even in a pandemic

Author: Rebecca Calcott

Buddy: Martina Arenella

Editor: Ellen Lommerse

Translator: Jill Naaijen

Translation Editor: Roeland Segeren

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

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