Socially Rigid People Make For Poorer Problem Solvers

Professor Carola Salvi explains why problem solving plays a key role in shaping holistic reasoning.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 26, 2023

A recent study published in Psychological Research investigates the correlation between social rigidity and cognitive rigidity. The study highlights that individuals who have rigid political and social attitudes also exhibit inflexible cognitive reasoning, leading to poorer performance in problem solving tasks.

I recently spoke to Professor Carola Salvi, faculty member at the Department of Psychological and Social Sciences at the John Cabot University (JCU) of Rome and associate faculty at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin (Dell Med), to discuss the findings of her study. Here is a summary of our conversation.

How does your research define and measure social rigidity and cognitive rigidity, and what is the relationship between these two constructs?

We find that people who are good problem-solvers, are also open-minded when they have to reason on social issues. 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."

There is a sheer breadth of conditions under which rigidity can manifest in human reasoning. In this study, we bridged between two distinct fields of research in psychology showing that social rigidity (measure using: conservatism, absolutism, xenophobia i.e., what we named Socio-Cognitive Polarization, but also bullshit receptivity, and overclaiming) predicts cognitive rigidity measured using problem- solving.

Our results suggest that inflexible thinking extends beyond strict political ideologies to a holistic reasoning style that includes aspects of rigidity such as xenophobia and absolutism. We, indeed, believe that voting decisions is just one overlooked aspect of social rigidity.

Since Adorno's The authoritarian personality, sociologists and psychologists have postulated that right-wing attitudes are associated with a "strict" cognitive style.

However, most of the research in cognitive and social psychology focused either on pure cognitive and content-free reasoning or used self-reported questionnaires on social reasoning but hardly ever linked the two. While scholars agree that rigidity is not a unitary phenomenon, no studies have investigated latent profiles of social rigidity and problem-solving.

What were some of the significant findings of your study? How do these findings expand our understanding of rigid thinking?

In the current study, we show that various types of social reasoning (conservatism, absolutism, xenophobia, bullshit receptivity, and overclaiming) predict distinct problem-solving performance.

This is the first one in a series of studies where we look at parallelisms between cognitive and social rigidity. Rigidity in human reasoning may occur under a wide range of contexts.

We connected two diverse fields of research in psychology in this work, demonstrating that social rigidity predicts cognitive rigidity in problem-solving.

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.

This outcome contains characteristics that are frequently connected with polarized political ideologies, such as bullshit susceptibility (i.e., overestimating pseudo-profound statements) and overclaiming.

The Latent Profiles Analysis performed revealed that those low in Socio-Cognitive Polarization (SCP i.e., conservatism, absolutism, xenophobia), bullshit receptivity, and overclaiming performed the best on measures of problem-solving.

Therefore, we argued that social rigidity may be shared by an underlying socio-cognitive construct, wherein those who are more socially rigid are more likely to be cognitively rigid as well.

Could you elaborate on the concept of overclaiming and how it is related to self-enhancement? How does it contribute to cognitive rigidity?

Overclaiming: i.e., the tendency to claim to know something that actually does not exist. Overclaiming is an actuarial, objective measure of faking that is often associated with bullshit and fabricating of information. Extreme political ideologies are often seen in association with a tendency to overclaim.

Regardless of the actual knowledge people have on a certain political matter, people who express radical political ideologies often tend to advocate for their ideology, even when lacking real information, and pursue their ideas with zeal and conviction.

For example, they tend to have more confidence in their domain-specific knowledge of geopolitical events and Van Prooijen et al. (2020) showed that knowledge overclaiming predicts anti-establishment voting, particularly in the radical right.

This individual tendency to self-enhance and overrate one's familiarity with general knowledge questions was measured using a shortened 13-item version of the Paulhus et al. (2003) overclaiming questionnaire.

Participants were asked to rate how familiar they were with a list of factual notions about physical sciences, historical events, or historical figures, plus 2 foils items designed to detect participants&rsquo overclaims.

Based on your research, how can individuals reduce their susceptibility to bullshit receptivity and overclaiming, which are associated with cognitive rigidity? Are there specific techniques or exercises that can help develop critical thinking skills?

Not based on our research, so far we are just exploring what kind of cognitive style is associated with social and cognitive rigidity. However, while I have no data on how to be more flexible, understanding why problem solving works might give us a hint.

So why problem-solving? What's the matter between solving content-free rebuses and social rigidity?

Solving a problem implies seeing things from a different perspective. Take for example the classic nine-dots problem. People are simply asked to connect these 9 dots with four straight and continuous lines. While it appears trivial this problem is very difficult for people, unless they overcome the initial representation of the problem as a square.

A similar reasoning happens when we deal with everyday social content. Some people keep looking at the nine dots and see a square and by embracing the status quo they never solve the problem. However, others (who are more cognitively flexible) overcome the initial representation of the nine dots as a square and solve the problem. (They literally think outside the box).

In our study, we find that this simple skill transfers to social reasoning and helps us view social problems in a new light.

Solving a problem entails being able to go beyond the first interpretation of a problem, accrue information, and incubate with potential solutions until the most appropriate solution is reached. The ability to detect fake news from real news also rely on mechanisms involved in problem-solving.

There is scientific literature showing that political ideology is associated with cognitive rigidity/flexibility and different problem-solving styles, where liberalism is associated with a problem-solving style oriented toward insight, and conservatism toward step-by-step processing.

Interestingly, insight problem-solving appears to lead to higher accuracy on problem-solving tasks, rely on brain regions responsible for novel and original associations and may also be involved in fake news detection.

What advice would you give to individuals who want to enhance their problem-solving abilities and become more open-minded in their thinking? Are there any practical steps they can take to overcome rigid perspectives and embrace alternative reasoning paths?

My best advice would be to hold on before we make any judgment and try to approach social issues as if we would try to solve an enigmatic problem that requires restructuring of an initial perspective to be solved.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our findings show a direct parallelism between social and cognitive rigidity nevertheless, additional study is required to speculate on the underlying unitary processes of this impact.

Unexpected finding- Within those who are low in SCP, there is a specific group of individuals who tend to fail at detecting pseudo-profound and overclaiming statements, similarly to the profiles high in SCP. We have reason to believe that our profile analysis taps into a latent subgroup of people who are understudied in social psychology, namely, individuals who embrace liberal ideologies but who also tend to overclaim their knowledge and believe in bullshit.

Our findings are consistent with the few studies that have found a relationship between the tendency to be so open-minded as to readily accept new ideas, thus overestimating the deepness of non-sense statements.

These individuals appear to be on the fence between being tolerant and perhaps overly receptive and credulous. What we discovered leads us to believe that this inclination toward bullshit receptivity and overclaiming is due to pseudo-flexibility, as those allocated to this profile also scored worse on problem-solving than those assigned to the low SCP and low bullshit receptivity and overclaiming profiles.