Partisans of the Left & Right More Similar Than They Think: Study
This is the age of partisanship. As our beliefs become increasingly polarised and digital echo chambers begin to dictate our realities, many of us are finding ourselves inadvertent partisans.
But partisanship isn’t just a matter of direction – that is, whether one’s beliefs and identity lean politically left or right. Partisanship also has a second, often overlooked, dimension captured by the intensity or extremity of one’s beliefs and identity.
For instance, a person could lean left in their political views and hold these beliefs strongly and dogmatically, and another could be politically right-wing but feel only a weak attachment to conservative parties and be receptive to alternative viewpoints.
When we speak about political partisanship, the labels of “left” and “right” are, therefore, insufficient: we must consider both partisan direction and extremity.
The Partisan Brain
The American thinker Eric Hoffer believed we could generate deep insights about human history, psychology, and politics by examining how people come to hold extreme ideological identities.
In his famous book, The True Believer (1951), Hoffer argued that extreme adherents to an ideology or political party tend to have a particular psychological character that makes them susceptible to joining any ideological group, regardless of the specific beliefs it advocates.
What are the characteristics of the “type of mind” that is most susceptible to thinking in extreme and dogmatic ways?
My colleagues and I at the University of Cambridge decided to take a different, more modern approach to answering this question, using the tools of cognitive science.
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We set out to investigate the psychology of the “ideological mind” and hypothesised that partisan rigidity and extremity might emerge from a general psychological tendency to process information in rigid and inflexible ways.
We reasoned that individuals with a tendency towards cognitive rigidity in how they perceive and react to the world generally might be more likely to be rigid and dogmatic about their political beliefs and identities as well.
In a recent published study, we invited 750 US citizens to complete multiple objective neuropsychological tests that allow us to measure their individual levels of cognitive rigidity and flexibility.
Regardless of the direction and content of their political beliefs, extreme partisans had a similar cognitive profile.
This suggests that partisan extremity is psychologically significant – the intensity with which we attach ourselves to political doctrines may reflect and shape the way our mind works, even at the basic levels of perception and cognition.
Notably, these findings would have remained hidden if we only considered whether participants were politically left- or right-wing.
These results prompt many questions about the relationship between our minds and our politics.
The answer is likely to be – as for most complex phenomena – an interaction of both. Scientifically, we would need longitudinal studies that track people over long periods of time to determine cause and effect.
We might also consider whether these findings can help us counter some of the negative aspects of living in the partisan age.
One of the neat properties of cognitive flexibility is that it is, in itself, malleable.
Would heightening our flexibility help us to build more tolerant and less dogmatic societies?
While the conservatism or liberalism of our beliefs may at times divide us, our capacity to think about the world flexibly and adaptively can unite us.
Extremity in either direction can lead us to see the world in black and white and forget to appreciate those crucial shades of grey in between.
Is it time for an age of plasticity to replace the age of partisanship?
Only if we learn to recognise that, despite the differences that sit on the outside, we are more similar than we think within.
(Leor Zmigrod is Research Fellow, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge.)
(This article was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished here with permission.)
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