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date: 28 September 2023

Cognitive Complexity in Political Contextslocked

Cognitive Complexity in Political Contextslocked

  • Shannon C. Houck, Shannon C. HouckDepartment of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School
  • Kathleen J. Huber, Kathleen J. HuberDepartment of Psychology, Syracuse University
  • Mackenzie EssMackenzie EssDepartment of Psychology, Syracuse University
  •  and Morgan L. ProulxMorgan L. ProulxDepartment of Psychology, Syracuse University


Cognitive complexity refers to open-minded, flexible, multidimensional thinking. An individual demonstrating high complexity interprets nuance, thinks about multiple perspectives, distinguishes among ideas, and considers their connections. Conversely, cognitive simplicity involves more concrete information processing wherein an individual may gravitate toward a singular perspective without recognizing alternatives or nuances. Cognitive complexity is a multifaceted construct that has been conceptualized as both a personality trait and a flexible information processing system that changes across situations. This “trait versus state” distinction has led to a wide array of measurements that can be broadly categorized by three distinct methodological approaches: (a) self-report measures, (b) behavioral measures, and (c) language content analysis. Having multiple and often divergent measures of the same construct can pose challenges in some regards, yet it also provides researchers flexibility in how to examine questions at the intersection of politics and cognition.

Focal areas of inquiry center around the causes and consequences of cognitive complexity as they relate to political ideology, political attitudes and behavior, and political peace and conflict, among other political dynamics. One of the dominating questions that has driven theory and research in political psychology concerns political ideological differences in cognitive complexity. Research comparing cognitive complexity across the political spectrum suggests political moderates are generally more complex than both conservatives and liberals, whereas conservatives tend to be less complex than political liberals. The relationship between cognitive complexity and political ideology is qualified by several factors, such as the type of complexity measurement used and the topic under consideration.

Other research finds that individuals seeking power, such as candidates campaigning for election or advocates fighting for political change, will generally find more success in cognitively simple strategies (e.g., using simple rather than complex communication). Maintaining positions of political power, on the other hand, demands more complexity. These findings have implications that extend beyond elections and governance, some of which are relevant to political peace and conflict. For example, research finds that cognitive complexity is generally associated with peace, and simplicity with violence.

Several avenues for future research exist in both theoretical and applied disciplines. One of many possibilities involves the relationship between cognitive complexity and political division and distrust. How do division and distrust influence how people think and process information with respect to cognitive complexity? Does the presentation of “fake news” impact the complexity of thought among media consumers; if so, what consequences might that have on political attitudes and decision-making? Relatedly, research has examined the features of complex (vs. simple) linguistic styles that differentiate true and false stories, finding that liars demonstrated lower cognitive complexity in their deceptive communication. Future research is needed to investigate the possible applications for estimating and predicting deception in news sources and among political leaders. Aside from these examples, the cognitive complexity construct and its variety of measurement approaches affords researchers interested in political domains countless avenues for continued investigation.


  • Political Psychology

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