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A group of psychological researchers based at the University of Cambridge recently conducted a cognitive study finding that, when it comes to politics, people on the left and right are more similar than they might think.

In an age in which our beliefs have become increasingly polarised and digital echo chambers seem to dictate our realities, a significant proportion of us ‘are finding ourselves inadvertent partisans’. Many feel they have been taught to rely on the left-right political distinction as ‘an essential tool’ for measuring who is likely to think similarly to them and with whom they should bond. However, partisanship is not only a matter of direction – that is, whether one’s beliefs and identity lean politically left or right. Partisanship has a second dimension which is captured by the intensity or extremity of one’s beliefs and identity.

This study sought to assess whether partisan rigidity and extremity may emerge from a general psychological tendency to process information in rigid and inflexible ways. The study’s participants, 750 US citizens, were required to complete multiple objective neuropsychological tests, as to measure individual levels of cognitive rigidity and flexibility. The researchers found that individuals who are extremely attached to the Democratic party or to the Republican party tend to display greater mental rigidity relative to those who are only moderately or weakly attached. Regardless of the direction and content of their political beliefs, extreme partisans appeared to have similar cognitive profiles. 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’.

Applicants for Psychology, along with students applying for Politics, can reflect on these finding and the kind of questions they prompt about the relationship between our minds and our politics. For example, ‘does engagement with an extreme ideology lead to mental rigidity? Or does cognitive inflexibility foster a proclivity towards ideological extremism?’ Or perhaps it is developed due to an interaction of both?

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