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Social Inflexibility Could Mess With Your Cognitive Ability

Here's why open-mindedness is important to keep your intelligence flexible.

Key points

  • A new study finds there is a link between social rigidity and cognitive rigidity.
  • Overclaiming is associated with cognitive rigidity.
  • Problem-solving skills can help to reduce cognitive rigidity.
Caleb Woods / Unsplash
Source: Caleb Woods / Unsplash

A new study published in Psychological Research sheds light on the intriguing connection between social rigidity and cognitive flexibility. The study delves into how traits like conservatism, xenophobia, and overclaiming can predict cognitive rigidity, as measured through problem-solving exercises.

“We find that people who are good problem-solvers are also open-minded when they have to reason on social issues,” says the lead author of the paper, Professor Carola Salvi, faculty at the Department of Psychological and Social Sciences at the John Cabot University (JCU) of Rome and associate faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Salvi states,

We can see the reflection of people’s flexible thinking in a variety of applications. For example, when we are looking for a solution to a math problem, but also when we reason on social issues. Is there a link between these two aspects of human thinking? In this study, we investigated what it means to be a flexible thinker.

To study the linkages, the authors used an online survey with 525 participants from Italy and the United States, recruited through various platforms. The participants’ average age was 38, and the sample consisted of 378 women, 145 men, and two participants with an undisclosed gender.

The survey included measures of cognitive rigidity, assessed via problem-solving tasks. It also measured social rigidity via a socio-cognitive polarization (SCP) factor, which combined elements of conservatism, absolutism, and xenophobia. The study also examined “bullshit receptivity” and “overclaiming” using other scientifically vetted scales.

The findings revealed that:

  1. Various types of social reasoning predict distinct problem-solving performance. Those who were low in socio-cognitive polarization and overclaiming performed the best on measures of problem-solving. In other words, there’s a possible connection between cognitive rigidity and a deeper socio-cognitive framework, indicating that individuals with higher levels of social rigidity are more prone to cognitive rigidity as well.
  2. Overclaiming, which is the tendency to claim to know something that actually does not exist, is associated with self-enhancement and can contribute to cognitive rigidity. Extreme political ideologies are often linked to overclaiming, where individuals confidently advocate for their beliefs without possessing adequate knowledge.

“Our findings imply that rigid thinking extends beyond formal political beliefs to a more holistic reasoning style that incorporates features of rigidity like problem-solving, but also xenophobia and absolutism,” says Salvi.

To reduce susceptibility to bullshit receptivity and overclaiming linked to cognitive rigidity, the author recommends focusing on enhancing problem-solving skills and cultivating a more open-minded approach.

Problem-solving requires the ability to look at things from different perspectives and go beyond initial representations, and this cognitive flexibility can be applied to social reasoning as well.

The researcher elucidates this point by giving the example of the classic nine dots problem which requires people to connect nine dots in a square with just four straight lines to test their ability to think, literally, “outside of the box.” Individuals who persistently perceive the nine dots as a square and remain trapped in the status quo are unable to solve the problem.

Contrary to this, those who display greater cognitive flexibility go beyond the initial square representation and successfully find a solution. This valuable skill of thinking beyond constraints extends to social reasoning, allowing individuals to approach social problems with fresh perspectives.

“Hold on before making judgments and approach social issues as if you would solve an enigmatic problem that requires restructuring of an initial perspective to be solved,” emphasizes Salvi.

While the research shows parallelism between social and cognitive rigidity, further research is needed to explore the underlying mechanisms and address the nuances of cognitive and social rigidity.

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