Now that the midterm elections are over, it’s time for a contemplative pause. One subject worthy of reflection is why so often, nothing really changes, election after election. In some states, the same party keeps controlling the governor’s office and the Legislature. In others, the same problems go unresolved for years, even decades. Why is this so?

I believe it’s because of a phenomenon called cognitive rigidity, which exists on both the left and the right.

Cognitive rigidity is the inability to mentally adapt or change. Its opposite is cognitive flexibility, the ability to consider different perspectives and opinions and in doing so, become a better person.

As a mental health counselor, I see cognitive rigidity at the root of many mental health issues, as well as relationship problems, conflict and hatred. People with depression become rigid in thinking about past pain and ruminate about past negative events. People with hatred become rigid in thinking narrowly about another group of people. People getting divorced become rigid in focusing on their spouse’s deficiencies and have difficulty seeing their strengths.

And politically rigid people demonize the other political party and can easily see hypocrisy within it, but do not use the same critical thinking to see hypocrisy in themselves or their political party.

Cognitive rigidity imprisons both liberals and conservatives, people of faith and atheists, those who are highly educated and those who are not, and people of different ethnic backgrounds and diverse sexual orientations. I have witnessed it in some of the most thoughtful and service-oriented people I know, such as friends in my church community who display a hard-heartedness and stiff-neckedness when politics is brought up. 

Cognitive rigidity seems to afflict many (but not all) Republican and Democratic leaders who cannot find middle-ground solutions or see anything good in the other party. But because we, the people, elect political leaders, it is at the base of all of us, and for democracy to thrive, we have to fight against it.

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Cognitive rigidity is supported by confirmation bias, which drives us to seek out information that supports our established positions. We return, over and over, to the same websites, podcasts and publications, and to people who speak our language, whether it’s Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Tucker Carlson on Fox News or our friendship circles. The consequence is that politics has become deeply tribal and conflict-driven.  

Not only does cognitive rigidity harm us, but it also harms others, and it can cause destruction to the broader community. I witnessed this vividly during COVID-19 when masks were first implemented. I saw that too many of my close friends could not be flexible enough to wear a mask for an hour or two in order to be thoughtful to churchgoers who had underlying health issues. Some shared that they were “religious freedom fighters” battling the evil-doing government. They saw themselves as the “good guys” fighting the “bad guys.”

But actually, they were rigidly stuck in their ideological rabbit hole, unable to be flexible enough to see how complicated it was to manage the spread of COVID-19.

What democracy needs

Last year, I was relieved to hear Dallin Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, say at general conference that thoughtful voting may require us to change our longstanding party affiliations, even from election to election. He also said that members should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a specific candidate.

Cognitive flexibility is what is needed in a democracy. It is, however, difficult to achieve. It takes an abundance of time and a tremendous amount of effort. It requires a disciplined mind grounded in a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. It takes self-mastery and self-control to authentically hear other views on the opposite side of what we think and value.

Cognitive flexibility is also difficult because it often creates cognitive dissonance, the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes, especially regarding behavioral decisions and attitude change. Cognitive dissonance creates uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, anxiety or even fear.

My history of voting, as a Canadian, included a vote for four different political parties over the past 30 years. But I remember that the first time I voted differently than my parents and most of my Christian friends, I felt like I was doing something “bad” and “wrong.”

As I explored different policy initiatives by other political leaders, I felt great uncertainty and estrangement when I realized that the political party I had disdain for actually had some fair-minded and even better ideas than the political party I had rooted myself within. I felt genuine confusion when I examined some of the questionable practices and policies of the leaders and parties I’d supported.

Often, to remedy or prevent the uncomfortable feelings associated with dissonance, people will make up false information about the political party or person they favor or disfavor. Such thinking eliminates or lowers the uncomfortable feelings as the fabricated thoughts decrease the dissonance between differing values. This creates a state of psychological homeostasis, a comfortable and often good feeling.

Balance the books

When I work with clients who struggle with cognitive rigidity in their own lives — for example, if they are unable to see anything other than their deceits and deficiencies — I will ask them if they know what accountants do.

Often, they look at me surprised, as this question seems to have come out of nowhere. But I explain that a good accountant balances the books and understands assets and liabilities. I tell them, “You need to fire the accountant in your mind who is only tracking your liabilities and replace him/her with one who will pay attention to your assets and liabilities. You need to balance the books.”

Similarly, many Americans in our hyperpartisan culture need to think like an accountant and keep track of the assets and liabilities of both political parties in a truly authentic and honest way. I hope many of us can move this way regarding future elections. The gift of democracy demands this from us.

As presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin underscored in her 2006 book “Team of Rivals,” the political genius of Abraham Lincoln was his ability to create the most unusual cabinet in history. He could do this because he had the cognitive flexibility to consider cabinet members of different opinions and brought his disgruntled opponents and rivals together. There was no groupthink. 

In his most recent book, “The Words That Made Us,” constitutional historian Akhil Amar has argued that, like Lincoln, George Washington was renowned for his ability to listen to diverse thoughts and change his mind. We need to develop this capacity in our own lives.

Rodney B. Dieser, Ph.D., LMHC, is the author of six books and more than 100 academic articles. He is a health, recreation and community services professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and works as a licensed mental health counselor at Wartburg College, a private Lutheran liberal arts college in Waverly, Iowa. The views expressed here are his own.