Leor Zmigrod looks at the cognitive underpinnings of nationalistic ideology in the context of Brexit. She writes that those with strongly nationalistic attitudes tend to process information in a more categorical manner, and this relationship manifests itself through a tendency to support authoritarian and conservative ideologies.
The failure of political polling in the recent elections of Europe and North America has revealed weaknesses in both our polling methodologies and our understanding of the psychological origins of voting behaviour. Traditional accounts tend to focus on the role of demographics and emotional influences in determining how citizens vote. Pollsters, politicians, and the public often fixate on how socioeconomic status, age, gender, race and geographical location shape voting preferences, or how charismatic leaders or emotionally-charged slogans motivate – and at times distort – voters’ preferences.
Nonetheless, new empirical research conducted by myself and my colleagues at the University of Cambridge is revealing that non-emotional psychological dispositions also shape citizens’ ideological inclinations. That is, differences in the ways in which our brains process information may hold clues for why we vote in certain ways.
The idea that our ideologies reflect our psychological motivations is not new. In an influential book titled The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Adorno and colleagues hypothesized that “ideologies have for different individuals, different degrees of appeal, a matter that depends upon the individual’s needs and the degree to which these needs are being satisfied or frustrated”. Similarly, in 1954, the famous psychologist Gordon Allport already suggested that our prejudices and ideological preferences are “unlikely to be merely specific attitude(s) toward specific group(s)… [these are] more likely to be a reflection of [a person’s] whole habit of thinking about the world”. These eloquent proposals captured the hearts and minds of researchers by making politics an extension of personal psychology, and not merely a feature of demographic circumstance.
Even though these ideas have been around for nearly 70 years, there has been little rigorous empirical research examining how cognitive traits shape nationalism and voting behaviour. In a recent paper, we sought to investigate the extent to which individual differences in emotionally-neutral, “cold” information processing styles predict voting behaviour and nationalistic sentiments in the 2016 EU Referendum.
The findings reveal that individuals with strongly nationalistic attitudes tend to process information in a more categorical and persistent manner, even when tested on neutral cognitive tasks that are unrelated to their political beliefs. These cognitive tasks probed how flexibly individuals process and evaluate perceptual and linguistic information. Notably, while most research relies on often-biased self-report questionnaires to measure psychological traits, here objective cognitive measures were administered to quantify cognitive information processing tendencies in a rigorous manner.
As evident in Figure 1, cognitive flexibility (measured by the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test) and support for Brexit were negatively correlated. In turn, cognitive flexibility was positively correlated with favourable attitudes towards immigration, the European Union, free movement of labour, and access to the EU Single Market (more details here).
Additionally, cognitive flexibility was significantly negatively correlated with agreement with the idea that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere,” a quote by UK Prime Minister Theresa May (see Figure 2). This quote may be interpreted as reflecting a highly specific and narrow definition of citizenship, as well as some negativity toward globalization; the negative correlation might therefore indicate that psychological flexibility could be linked to how broadly versus narrowly identity boundaries are drawn.
Furthermore, Structural Equation Modelling analysis demonstrated that cognitive flexibility and intolerance of ambiguity predicted individuals’ endorsement of authoritarianism, conservatism, and nationalism to a substantial degree (see Figure 3). Individuals who exhibited greater cognitive flexibility and were more tolerant of uncertainty were less likely to support authoritarian, conservative, and nationalistic attitudes. These ideological orientations in turn predicted participants’ attitudes towards Brexit, immigration, and free movement of labour, accounting for 47.6% of the variance in support for Brexit. The results suggest that cognitive thinking styles associated with processing perceptual and linguistic stimuli may also be drawn upon when individuals evaluate political and ideological arguments.
Participants were also asked to indicate whether they believe that the UK Government has the right to remain in the EU if the costs of Brexit are too high. Cognitive flexibility was positively related to participants’ endorsement of the government’s right to adapt its policies to potential risks (see Figure 1). This highlights a parallel between flexible cognitive styles and support for flexible policy implementation.
Notably, these psychological dispositions are not fixed or purely genetically determined. Education, training, and experience can shape individuals’ cognitive flexibility throughout the lifespan.
We have already replicated these findings in other studies focused on different ideological domains. The results illustrate that non-emotional psychological dispositions can also predict religiosity, political partisanship (Zmigrod et al., under review), and intellectual humility (i.e. individuals’ receptivity to evidence in forming decisions; Zmigrod et al., under review).
What are the implications of this research for British politics? Firstly, these findings challenge the idea that political behaviour is solely a product of emotional processes and demographic characteristics; our ideologies possess cognitive, non-emotional dimensions that transcend socioeconomic issues. Secondly, the results provide empirical evidence that – to some degree – democracy reflects a battle to capture and exploit our psychological biases and tendencies. Consequently, effective political campaigns may need to consider framing and providing policy solutions in terms that satisfy both individuals’ preferences for traditions and clarity as well as their desire for flexibility and change. As a Brexit deal or no-deal scenario approaches in the coming months, policymakers may benefit from incorporating these considerations and implementing them in socially responsible ways.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with ) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Leor Zmigrod is a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar in the department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).
This is very interesting work and was a pleasure to read about.
I did wonder though, you mention the work of Adorno but not of Milton Rokeach, who has shed light on authoritarian personalities on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course there’s also the work of Peter Suedfeld, Philip Tetlock etc., who show that measures of integrative and cognitive complexity can also help us understand cognitive processing across the spectrum; particularly that there’s a narrowing of the bandwidth as we proceed from the centre along the poles to left and right, which is further elucidated by new work on value pluralism. There’s also the work of Jim Sidanius, who in a way contradicts the ‘rigidity of the extremes’ hypothesis and argues for the cognitive resourcefulness of e.g. activists on the further right and left. I hope to look at some of these factors in my pwn PhD work too, although at the moment am bogged down in triangulation and varieties of institutional theories, so may well never get there…look forward to reading more of your work anyway. Best wishes…
My first impression of these tests are that they reflect more about the questioner and the questions than they do the results obtained.
The Wisconsin card sorting test for accuracy, is easy to see in the first two questions because that is directly related to opinion, but when you consider the third issue about government actions according to cost is knowledge specific. In fact it’s not even a relevant question because the facts are that costs do not matter in relation to this country, but might in fact be more relevant to those other countries within the EU. We in this country have our own sovereign currency, which means we can at all times meet any financial obligation no matter how large. Whereas European countries in the Euro Zone are more like a household and must through trade earn Euros in order to pay their way. That does not apply to us, because the Bank of England can electronically print as much as is required.
Most people do not know that, which makes it difficult for them to answer that question at all objectively.
From looking at the charts, it appears the linear relationships would disappear if the tail-ends are excluded. That is, those with very strong attitudes – on the positive and negative ends of the spectrum – on the policy issues surrounding Brexit (immigration, citizen, Brexit overall) exhibit clear differences in cognitive flexibility. But for everybody else, there is no relationship between their cognitive flexibility and their Brexit attitudes.
Very interesting research.
From my experience, what you are measuring is the individual-group or egocentric-social identity spectrum. Those who are more individualistic/egocentric tend to be associated with conservative/authoritarian/right wing ideology, while group/socially focussed people are liberal/progressive/left wing.
Of course, we all are egocentric, but if your identity is derived from the group then you will be more likely to have greater cognitive flexiblity in order to negotiate your way through group interactions. If you derive your identity from a narrow individual perspective then you need to maintain the self/other split by being more categorical and less flexible.
@Paul Settles: I too find the research interesting, though I have a number of reservations.
1) The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is in effect a type of intelligence/IQ tests (see my pasted excerpt below), as there are objectively correct answers to the test questions. A robot programmed to evaluate the right answers will score 100%. The Compound Remote Associates test for verbal and language skills. Hence what the study shows – assuming the results are methodologically and statistical robust – is that people with high IQ (measured in a certain way) and strong language skills tend to have pro-EU, pro-immigration, liberal views. Conversely people with low IQ and weak language skills are pro-Brexit, anti-immigration, socially conservative. As I pointed out earlier, when people attitudes at ends of the spectrum are excluded from the study, there does not appear a linear relationship for people in the middle, between so-called “cognitive flexibility” and their EU related attitudes. Issues surrounding EU membership (workings of Single Market, Custom Union, trade deals, the European Parliament & EU Commission) are far more complex than most citizens are competent to assess. I suspect when faced with these complex issues, people with high levels of intelligence would defer to the experts while those with lower intelligence latched onto emotive considerations (feelings towards immigration, national identity, self-reliance). Emotive considerations in normal political situations have legitimate role in electoral choices, but they are highly inadequate in handling complex geopolitical-economic issues.
2) I have reservation behind the metric of authoritarianism used in the study. (see pasted excerpt below). It measures attitudes to raising children, and how children should respond to authority figures. It may turn out there is some correlation between people’s attitude to child-rearing and their beliefs about political authoritarianism. One definition of the latter is provided by Pippa Norris: “Authoritarian values endorse the priority of tough security to protect the tribe against threats from outsiders, adherence to conventional group norms, and loyal obedience to tribal leaders.” (https://www.pippanorris.com/cultural-backlash-1/)
By this definition, in absence of supporting empirical evidence, attitude to childrearing seems to be a poor proxy for political authoritarianism.
3) I have reservation with the term “authoritarianism” as it has a negative moral connotation, associated with dictators and despots. Political scientists who frame one side of the Brexit debate in terms of authoritarianism risk making a pre-judgment on the moral status of one camp. Alternative more neutral terms are available: “strong governments”, “strong leaders”, nationalism, anti-federalism. The above definition risks prejudging the debate by painting one side as archaic, and describing nationalistic leaders in developed countries supported by millions of electorate as “tribal” leaders. The past couple of years saw rising electoral support for nationalistic parties across Europe: National Front in France, Swedish Democrats, AfD in Germany, FPO in Austria, Fidesz under Orban in Hungary, UKIP (until the 2016 EU Referendum). However, it is highly questionably whether Marine Le Pen, Jimmie Åkesson, Alice Weidel & Alexander Gauland, Heinz-Christian Strache, Orban and Nigel Farage, demanded or attracted “loyal obedience” from their supporters, any more than liberal leaders like Obama, Clinton and Merkel from theirs. The value of loyal obedience doesn’t seem to capture well the characteristics of these nationalistic parties and leaders.
4) I would also question whether the conventional group norms referred in the definition, are merely “conventional”. If it turns out these norms are also moral norms, then this alters the moral standing of those espousing authoritarian values.
5) Paul Settles claims that individualistic/egocentric people are associated with conservative/authoritanian/rightwing ideology while group/socially focussed people with liberal/progressive/leftwing. I dispute this characterisation. Nationalistic parties and their supporters often have very strong sense of cultural and group identities. They are not egocentric, caring only for themselves and their immediate families. They also care about their communities they live in (impacted by new arrivals with different culture & religion & language from theirs), and interests of their nation above interests of people outside their nation (hence they are nationalistic). Until liberal commentators and politicians appreciate this, they won’t be able to address the concerns of electorate voting for nationalistic parties.
“Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. The WCST (31) was administered with Inquisit 5 by Millisecond Software in standard fashion (32). Participants are presented with four key cards and a deck of response cards that vary on three dimensions (color, shape, and number of geometric figures) and are asked to match a fifth card from the sequentially presented response cards to one of the four key cards. There are various potential rules that can underpin the classification, for instance matching the cards by shape, number, or color. Participants are required to identify and apply the correct card classification rule in accordance with the feedback they receive after each trial. Participants are informed at the start of the task that the card classification rule can change
without warning. Correspondingly, after participants correctly respond to 10 consecutive trials the classification rule changes, requiring a flexible set shift. The task terminates after participants complete six categories (twice for each of the three classification rules) or after 128 trials. Participants’ performance is indexed through the accuracy rate during the task.
“Compound Remote Associates Test. The compound RAT (36) consisted of 20 compound remote associate problems, in which participants are presented with three cue words (e.g., fly, cracker, fighter) and are asked to generate the compound word solution that links these three words (e.g., fire). Participants were given 20 s to provide an answer to each problem. Problems of varying difficulty levels were selected from a bank of validated remote associate items (71).”
“Authoritarian beliefs were measured with a four-item set of child-rearing questions developed by Hetherington and Weiler (73), which asks “which one do you think is more important for a child to have?” and then requires participants to choose one in the following pairs: “independent or respectful,” “curious or well-mannered,” “obedient or selfreliant,” and “considerate or well-behaved.” Each item is coded 0 for the
nonauthoritarian answer (independent, curious, self-reliant, and wellbehaved) and 1 for the authoritarian answer, and a summed total is used as a measure of authoritarian beliefs.”
Hon Wai Lai, thank you for your reply, but you have misunderstood my observation about people who tend toward being individualistic/egocentric being associated with conservative/authoritarian/right wing ideology, while group/socially focussed people are liberal/progressive/left wing.
The difference is in the direction of causality. Group/socially focussed people derive the majority of their identity from group membership. Thus, causality in identity formation tends to run from the group to the individual. Given that the only constant in life is change, such people tend to be more cognitively flexible in order to maintain their place in the group.
Individualistic/egocentric people appear to derive their identity from group membership as well. However, their “membership” is really a form of ego inflation. They grow up in a particular social context. As they develop self consciousness and their individual identity they incorporate their social context into that identity. Again, in order to maintain their relatively stronger self/other split, they have to be more categorical and less flexible.
I hope this clarifies my point for you.
@Paul Settles, thank you for your elaboration. I think I correctly responded to your position based on your initial short comment. I will now engage with your elaborated position.
One needs to be careful not to collapse conservatism (which in turn often needs to be subdivided into social conservatism and economic conservativism) with authoritarianism and rightwing ideology as a monolithic stance, as they are somewhat orthogonal. Understanding Brexit and rising electoral support for rightwing nationalistic parties in Europe, requires analysing political attitudes along multiple dimensions, beyond the traditional left-right divide. For example, the most prominent campaigner for Remain in the run-up to the Referendum was David Cameron – a Conservative on right of the political spectrum. Whereas socialist Jeremy Corbyn took a lukewarm approach, and couldn’t be bothered during the campaign, and his negative view of EU as a corporatist club is at odds with party membership. Another example: Emmanuel Macron is one of the most enthusiastic EU head of state for closer and faster European integration, and supported Merkel’s open-door policy to migrants from Middle-East & Africa. Yet he is an economic conservative/rightwinger, evident from his agenda of lowering income & corporate tax, confrontation with trade unions, liberalising labour market, opening parts of public sector to market competition. Another example: Marine Le Pen’s protectionist economic policies and opposition against privatization are at odds with rightwing free-market ideology. Yet she is socially conservative and stridently anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro are leftwing socialists and authoritarians. The latter undermined checks and balances in political system, centralized power, jailed political opponents. Hence authoritarianism can be coupled with either leftwing or rightwing politics.
We can extrapolate from these leaders that their core supporters share their political views along these orthogonal dimensions.
I allow that you may have empirical evidence showing correlation between individual-group versus egocentric-social identity spectrum on one hand, and cognitive flexibility. However, the PNAS article using Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and Compound Remote Associate test, doesn’t support your hypothesis. They don’t test for sociality, social intelligence or the ability to relate and empathise with other people, or inclination to derive identity from a group. A neither egocentric nor social robot lacking awareness of individual and group identity, can be programmed to attain perfect scores. Those tests are typically administrated by human researchers, but they can equally be administrated entirely via a computer screen, hence no social interaction is involved.
I agree that change is an ubiquitous feature of contemporary societies, but I reject your characterisation of people with conservative and rightwing views as being less cognitively flexible when dealing with change. Leftwingers can be as dogmatic and inflexible as rightwingers in their view of the world, and how they selectively dismiss evidence inimical to their worldview. Change can be in form of economic structures, such as rise & decline of industries driven by technological change and changing consumer preferences, economic change brought about by globalisation and free-market systems. People with leftwing ideology typically resist this type of change, they resist “creative destruction” brought about free-markets and advocate protectionist policies (hence some leftwingers dislike the EU Single Market which bans state subsidies). Change can also be demographical & cultural, for example, brought about by mass migration, with influx of people from different culture religion and language. People with socially conservative and nationalistic attitudes tend to resist this type of change. While change is ubiquitous, populace are not passive observers in face of economic and cultural change, which arguably can be either beneficial or detrimental, and can be accommodated or resisted. Some Brexiteers view cultural and demographic change brought about by immigration as undermining British culture, and resist this type of change. Across the globe, one of the rights of nation states is their ability to control who can enter and become part of their society. Yet this runs into tension with the EU’s pillar of freedom of movement of people, and for some Eastern European states like Hungary and Poland, in tension with the EU Commission’s attempt to impose migrants/refugees quotas.
I adopt a common parlance definition of egocentrics: people who place their own interests and welfare disproportionately above those of others, and lack respect for other people’s beliefs and attitudes different from theirs. Liberals and progressives who denigrate the sense of group membership among conservatives & rightwingers as “ego inflation” lack respect for others different from themselves, hence risk being guilty of egocentrism.
You have not provided an adequate delineation between egoists/individualists from socially-centred people. By your definition, group/socially focused people “derive the majority of their identity from group membership. Thus, causality in identity formation tends to run from the group to the individual.” The eponymous far-right group, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, fit this definition. They believed in the superiority of their (Aryan) culture, enforced group conformity and suppressed individual expression. Some contemporary European rightwing nationalistic parties, in a limited way, share these characteristics. You define egoists/individualists as people who “grow up in a particular social context” and who as they “develop self consciousness and their individual identity they incorporate their social context into that identity.” Yet everybody, of whatever political persuasion, grow in up a particular social context and as they grow up and go through life, their social context (e.g. race, gender, religion, profession) will to varying degrees become incorporated into their individual identity.
Before you can provide an account of how individualistic/egocentric people derive their identity, you have to first define who they are. As I pointed out, rightwing nationalistic parties and their supporters can have strong sense of cultural and group identities. Given you acknowledge such people derive their identity from membership of their group, and hence they care about the interests and wellbeing of their group, then in what sense can you legitimately label them as individualistic and egocentric?
@ Paul Settles. The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, famed for his work on moral psychology, has a lot of illuminating things to say about the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of their moral psychology:
“The moral roots of liberals and conservatives”
“The Psychological Foundations of the American Culture War”
“Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives”
His work is primarily based on the American context, where religious conservatives have been co-opted by rightwing politics. I suspect American conservatives place higher importance on the moral value of “sanctity” and “authority” partly because of their religious background. I suspect repeating Haidt’s methodology on UK and Europe (especially the largely secular northern countries) will yield somewhat different results.
He explains Brexit and rise of Trump in terms of conflict between globalists and nationalists:
“Political scientists who frame one side of the Brexit debate in terms of authoritarianism risk making a pre-judgment on the moral status of one camp. Alternative more neutral terms are available: “strong governments”, “strong leaders”, nationalism, anti-federalism”
Your alternative “more neutral” terms are not any more neutral than the term “authoritarian” – your reply seems to be motivated more by a desire to defend right-wing attitudes from being correctly identified as reactionary, rather than any desire for correct terminology.
@James O’Donnell, describing Brexit in terms of nationalism and anti-federalism seem pretty neutral to me. They are terms both critics and proponents would be happy to attribute to Brexit. Similarly, “populism” and “anti-establishment politics” are also terminologies both camps are happy to use. Note that authoritarianism can be coupled with either rightwing or leftwing ideologies (think of Venezuela, Cuba, Soviet Union) – nothing inherently rightwing about authoritarianism. I don’t think Brexit is driven by rightwing attitudes (i.e. attitudes associated with support for rightwing economic and social policies) – if it were, it would hard to explain why many strongly Labour constituencies voted Leave, or why a large minority of Scottish voters backed Leave.
For the record, I voted Remain and would vote in the same way in a future referendum, and I have neither personal affinity nor aversion to British nationalism or any other nationalism. My intention here is neither a defence nor critique of Brexit nor the rise of nationalism across many European countries in recent years, but to understand them as sociological phenomena. This requires avoiding prejudging one camp with morally loaded terms.
As to whether Brexit and European nationalism are “reactionary”, it depends on how the term is defined. Like the term “authoritarian”, “reactionary” is typically a descriptive term (the latter describes an aspiration to return to the status quo before recent social change) coupled with an evaluative judgment (the judgment that such an aspiration deserves moral disapproval).
Let me illustrate what I mean with an example taken from Sweden. Recently, I watched a debate between party leaders during the Swedish election campaign and a campaign video by Jimmie Åkesson of the Swedish Democrat Party (often labelled Far-Right by the media). The narrative sent out by the Swedish Democrats is the aspiration to return Sweden to the status quo prior to the high immigration of recent years, when the welfare state was able to provide needs, Swedes received prompt healthcare treatment, when Swedes didn’t have to put up with headline news with rapes murders and robbery dominating the news every day, when there weren’t ghettos plagued with gang violence. In short, Jimmie Åkesson aspires to return Sweden to the socialist utopia so often paraded by leftwing commentators. This aspiration fits the descriptive non-evaluative component of the term “reactionary” but without additional justification, it is far from clear whether such an aspiration deserves moral disapproval (it does not seem wrong to aspire to return Sweden to its former glory as a socialist utopia). If one were to slap the Swedish Democrats with the “reactionary” label, one risks stifling debate and discussion on the substantive factual matters.
You should take a look at the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s article explaining Brexit & Trump & rise of European nationalism in terms of nationalist versus globalist outlook:
He is a political liberal/centrist, yet he takes a fairly sympathetic attitude to the other side.
This is related to your work.
These are related too: