The way in which our brains process everyday information can help shape our ideological beliefs and political decision-making. Now a new study shows how these psychological processing styles may have affected voters’ attitudes in the United Kingdom’s 2016 European Union (EU) Referendum.
For the study, psychology researchers at the University of Cambridge in England set out to investigate the psychological underpinnings of nationalistic attitudes. They gave objective cognitive tests along with questionnaires designed to measure social and political attitudes to a sample of over 300 U.K. citizens.
The researchers then examined the differences between “cold cognition,” emotionally-neutral decision making based on attention and recall, and “hot cognition,” choices more strongly influenced by emotion.
They also measured the extent to which an individual displays a more “flexible” or a more “persistent” cognitive style. Cognitive flexibility is characterized by adapting with greater ease to change, while cognitive persistence reflects a preference for stability through adherence to more defined information categories.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal that participants with higher scores in cognitive flexibility were less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic ideological stances. They were also more likely to support remaining in the EU as well as immigration and free movement of labor.
In contrast, those who scored higher in cognitive persistence showed more conservative and nationalistic attitudes, which in turn predicted support for leaving the EU.
“Voting is often thought to be an emotional decision. People describe ‘voting with their heart’ or having a gut reaction to particular politicians,” said Leor Zmigrod, lead researcher and Gates Cambridge Scholar.
“While emotion is clearly integral to political decision-making, our research suggests that non-emotional cognitive information processing styles, such as adaptability to change, also play a key role in shaping ideological behavior and identity.”
“By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes.”
All 332 participants in the study were cognitively healthy adults who underwent two classic evaluations of cognitive flexibility: a card-sorting task involving shifting categorization by shape and color, and a neutral word association task.
Participants also offered their opinions on immigration and citizenship, and personal attachment to the U.K. All information was anonymized and controlled for a number of factors including age and education.
With her Cambridge colleagues Dr. Jason Rentfrow and Professor Trevor Robbins, Zmigrod constructed rigorous statistical models showing that a tendency towards cognitive flexibility predicted ideological orientations that were less authoritarian, nationalistic, and conservative. This in turn predicted reduced support for Brexit.
“Our findings suggest that persistent adherence to a set of rules in a basic card-sorting game is associated with support for traditional social values and conservative political attitudes,” said Rentfrow.
In addition, participants who reported greater reliance on daily routines and traditions and who strongly favored certainty over uncertainty, were more likely to prefer the traditionalism and perceived stability offered by nationalistic, authoritarian, and conservative ideologies. Increased dependence on daily routines was also related to greater support for Brexit and immigration control.
Participants were also asked about their agreement with post-Referendum political attitudes. Those who supported the statement “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” and opposed the statement “the Government has a right to remain in the EU if the costs are too high” exhibited a tendency towards cognitive persistence.
“The results suggest that psychological preferences for stability and consistency may translate into attitudes that favour uniformity and a more defined national identity,” said Zmigrod.
The researchers note that the sample size is limited, and the correlations — while strong — are on general trends in the data.
“Ideologies such as nationalism are highly complex constructs, and there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do,” added Zmigrod.
“In today’s politically polarized climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”
Source: University of Cambridge