Cognitive flexibility and nationalism

There’s something off about a new study that attempts to map the cognitive flexibility of people to their ideological preferences. To quote from the study’s ‘Significance’ section:

We found that individuals with strongly nationalistic attitudes tend to process information in a more categorical manner, even when tested on neutral cognitive tasks that are unrelated to their political beliefs. The relationship between these psychological characteristics and strong nationalistic attitudes was mediated by a tendency to support authoritarian, nationalistic, conservative, and system-justifying ideologies.

The intensity and extent of ideological divisions are being deepened across the world. This study examined over 300 citizens of the UK for “whether strict categorisation of stimuli and rules in objective cognitive tasks would be evident in strongly nationalistic individuals” – a nationalism indicated, for example, by these individuals being pro-Brexit. The results of the study could ostensibly apply to how certain groups around the world think: the extreme right in the US, the neo-Nazis in Germany, the National Front in France and the so-called “bhakts” in India.

These ideological divisions, imagined in the form of political polarisation, are bad enough as it is without people on one side of the aisle being able to accuse those on the other side of having “low cognitive flexibility”. The nuance can be worded as prosaically as the neuroscientists would prefer but this won’t – can’t – stop the less-nationalistic from accusing the more-nationalistic of simply being stupid, now with a purported scientific basis.

This is why I believe something has to be off about the study. The people on the right, as it were on the political spectrum, are not stupid. They’re smart just the way those of us on the left imagine ourselves to be. Now, one defence of the study may be that it attempts to map a hallmark feature of the global political right, sort of a rampant anti-intellectualism and irrationality, to its neurological underpinnings – but nationalism is more than its endorsement of traditions or traditional values.

While the outcomes of many socio-political actions may seem to promote irrational beliefs and practices, these actions are carefully engineered by very smart people and executed to perfection. One example that comes immediately to mind is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media strategy. Another is the resounding victory it achieved in the Lok Sabha and Uttar Pradesh elections in 2014 and 2017, resp.

(Both these enterprises are well-documented in the form of books – this and this, e.g. – and in fact make the less-nationalistic look quite silly for its sluggish group response. Would that say something about “our” cognitive abilities as well?)

Finally, a note about labels. Following astronomy research for half a decade has taught me that when stars explode, there is a tremendous variety of things that happen, such that it’s impossible for a five-century-old human enterprise to possibly identify, label, and categorise all of them within a small, finite group of processes. Similarly, trying to associate the symptoms of one infinite set (human socio-politics) with a finite-but-large set (human neurology) can be fraught with many mistakes.