The Psychology That Leads People to Vote for Extremists & Autocrats: The Theory of Cognitive Closure

There’s a political disconnect in the United States. We have two political parties, each now living in its own reality and working with its own set of facts. The common ground between them? Next to none.

How to explain this disconnect? Maybe the answer lies in the theory of “cognitive closure”–a theory first worked out by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski back in 1989.

“People’s politics are driven by their psychological needs,” Kruglanski explains in the short documentary above. “People who are anxious because of the uncertainty that surrounds them are going to be attracted to messages that offer certainty.”

He sips a soda, then continues, “The need for closure is the need for certainty, to have clear cut knowledge. You feel that you need to stop processing too much information, to stop listening to a variety of viewpoints, and zero in on what appears to be, to you, the truth.” “The need for closure tricks your mind to believe you have the truth, even though you haven’t examined the evidence very carefully.” And that, unfortunately, can be very dangerous.

Kruglanski’s theory could help explain the rise of Nazism in the economically-depressed Weimar Germany. And it’s perhaps why, across much of our economically stagnating world, we’re seeing populations lurch toward extreme ideologies and autocratic personalities. “The divisions, the polarization, it’s all part of the same psychological syndrome,” says Kruglanski.

So what’s the cure? Listen to other points of view. Look at all available information. And, most of all, be suspicious of your own sense of righteous.

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Comments (9)
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  • Virginia Howard says:

    The sentence: “And, most of all, be suspicious of your own sense of righteous”, should read: your own sense of *the* righteous, or — your own sense of *righteousness*.

  • Nona says:

    I miss when this site had posts that weren’t about Trump. It’s just a bit of an overload, we already see him everywhere we look in the media.

  • Bill W. says:

    If you don’t even know your candidate’s political-platform, and are just voting for them because they have a certain letter (D/R/L/G) after their name, doesn’t say uncomfortable things, agrees with EVERYTHING you believe (whether it’s true or not), or has a cool bumper sticker-slogan, etc…please, DON’T vote!!!

  • Peter Gna says:

    The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
    (Bertrand Russell)

  • brad says:

    While the causes are undoubtedly the catastrophic right wing economic failures from both parties in every country – neoliberalism is a pretty extreme, fundamentalist, hands-free ideology – the battle seems to be over culture and identity, which incidentally was one of the few things that seemed certain.

    I think the turning point came with Occupy in 2011. Had we made substantial economic changes in response to the banks crashing the global economy in an orgy of fraud, the present would have a better chance of a positive outcome.

    The new certainty: the economic philosophy will not change under any circumstances, and as a result of continuing stagnation and perpetual decline in the west, extreme violence and war is all but certain. It’s mind-blowing. I pray I’m wrong.

  • bogdan says:

    cognitive closure (like the current notion of “post-truth”) is a consequence and is inherent to the pseudo-democratic process – the false word, or the non-word of the people (democracy manifested/understood as election and vote). and branding false images is essential in this pseudo-democracy. not having a word (to say), people must have and form only an image of their freedom and power. a (irrational) representation -described with the contradictory political term of representative democracy..
    repressed and without the word, people manifest their wish for freedom and power in a repressive form, passively (and passionately) projecting distorted and constructed images and hopes. pseodo-democracy can be even more disastrous than non-democracy.

  • Randy says:

    “So what’s the cure? Listen to other points of view. Look at all available information. And, most of all, be suspicious of your own sense of righteous”

    Except all that does is make me aware of my own biases, while everyone else continues on with theirs…

  • Richard Reiss says:

    Long explanation of a fix:

    Short explanation: make people govern themselves

    Relatively brief explanation of how politics works, and why this election happened. From 2005, but since we basically have the same election every 4 years (with varying results), it still works.

    The timeless recipe for totalitarianism, explained simply:

  • Hanoch says:

    I agree that we must analyze “other points of view” and “all available information”. One major obstacle to this, however, is that our educational institutions have become almost totally illiberal (in the classic sense of that term) indoctrination centers that are not concerned with true education. Almost all professors hired by colleges reside on the left of the political spectrum, restrictive speech codes are enacted on campus, outside speakers who do not adhere to leftist ideology are barred or “disinvited” from speaking on campus (or, if they even make it that far, are shouted down by leftist ideologues who will not tolerate the expression of ideas with which they disagree). Most on the left have no desire to reinvigorate true liberal education because, ultimately, they are concerned with obtaining power, not pursuing truth.

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