Getting Unstuck: Countering Polarization with Cognitive Flexibility

Jessie Mannisto / May 27, 2021

Stuckness, says Dr. Mike Brooks, is at the root of both his clients’ anxiety and depression and our political polarization.

So how do we get unstuck? In this interview, we chat about cognitive flexibility, the importance of relationships, and how it all unfolds on social media.

Doesn’t it feel like everyone is just a little bit stuck these days?

I suppose that’s a normal part of life to some degree. Life is always going to pose its challenges. But right now, we’re fourteen months into a pandemic; we’ve watched several varieties of political unrest on one screen (probably some you sympathized with and some you despised); and many of our social interactions have been flattened, the full humanity of our conversation partners eroded ever so slightly but surely, by the screens that mediate our connection.

That’s some sticky stuff right there for sure. In an effort to cast a rope to Third Factor readers stuck in this quicksand, I reached out to Dr. Mike Brooks, a therapist based in Austin, Texas, USA. Dr. Brooks is a licensed psychologist with a particular interest in the impact of modern technology on our lives. He blogs about this at Psychology Today, and he’s also the lead author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. I first encountered him on Twitter, where his bio said that he was “Passionately pursuing well-being, reasonableness, connection, and equanimity in a complicated world.”

Hey, I told him, that’s what we’re trying to do, too! Interested in a chat?

And that’s how we ended up chatting about how to apply ancient wisdom from traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism—as well as a bit of modern psychological knowledge—to the same problems that have plagued us since ancient times, now mediated through modern technology.

Stuckness: Individual and Societal

Stuckness was Brooks’ word for what he considers a primary source of human unhappiness. When people are stuck, “they’re not able to get out of some type of rut in their thinking about themselves, the world, the future,” he told me. They know they want to change something, but they don’t know what or how to change.

That, of course, is what brings them into his office. “The way I see therapy in a general sense is trying to help people think differently and behave differently to get unstuck, so they can increase their well-being and life satisfaction,” he said. The question that guides Brooks’ work with his clients is this: How do you help suffering people to think differently, to interact differently, to have different behaviors?

As he explored stuckness on the individual level with his clients, Brooks began to recognize the same patterns at the societal level—in particular, in the form of extreme political polarization. “We end up drawn to these ways of thinking about other groups—mine’s right and good and yours is awful and wrong and ignorant and biased. That’s a very rigid and dysfunctional way to view things. If we don’t learn to view people differently, we’re going down a very dark road. We’re not gonna like where it takes us.”

If we don’t learn to view people differently, we’re going down a very dark road. We’re not gonna like where it takes us.

Dr. Mike Brooks

And as with the depressed and anxious people who come to Brooks’ office, most of us feel that something is wrong here, but we’re not sure what we can or should do about it. We, too, are stuck.

Belonging vs. Independence

Okay, so we’re stuck. To get out of this quicksand, the first thing we should figure out is why we’re inclined to behave like this in the first place.

“There is power to being connected with a group and a cause,” Brooks told me. In-group affiliation has important benefits for the people in the group. The trade-off, however, is that attachment is the root of our suffering, as the Buddha recognized centuries ago.

As it so often does, Brooks suggested, it comes down to seeking a balance: “We want to identify with a group—to be attached to people—but not so much that we lose ourselves within our group, that our whole sense of self is derived by our connection with the group.”

To give just one example, he mentioned Trump voters he knows. “If you’re so invested in Trump that seeing him disparaged by others makes it feel like you are disparaged, then in a way, you’re defending yourself by proxy,” he said. “Your sense of self is threatened by anything wrong with him—something wrong with him means something’s wrong with you. There’s too much attachment.”

To be sure, we could pick other proxies. Maybe you dislike Trump and therefore easily recognize that Trump voters are doing this, but are you ready to consider that you might be doing the same? As I mentioned to Brooks, I myself was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America from 2013 to 2017, and I saw plenty of people who fell wholly into the belonging that came with active participation in such a group. Though I’m certainly not qualified to make mental health diagnoses, I also remember wondering whether there might be a fair amount of depression and anxiety among our members and how that might be affecting our organization.

“You’re right on there,” Brooks told me. “Some people get so wrapped up in causes that they lose themselves—and they may not realize there’s something deeper rooted in them that that’s trying to fill. They’re so upset by the world’s problems that they’re almost not able to function in a reasonable way. They’ve lost themselves to their emotions.”

Some people get so wrapped up in causes that they lose themselves—and they may not realize there’s something deeper rooted in them that that’s trying to fill.

Dr. Mike Brooks

Now it’s our moderate readers’ turn to get cocky—but that, too, would be an error. Because that need to belong, and that desire to fill pockets of emptiness inside us, is part of every human being’s experience. “It’s really within all of us to some extent,” said Brooks.

Balance Through Cognitive Flexibility

To address this stuckness, Brooks is trying to spread the word about a concept in psychology called cognitive flexibility. Ahead of our conversation, I looked it up and found this definition on Wikipedia:

Cognitive flexibility has been more broadly described as the ability to adjust one’s thinking from old situations to new situations as well as the ability to overcome responses or thinking that have become habitual and adapt to new situations. As such, if one is able to overcome previously held beliefs or habits (when it is required for new situations) then they would be considered cognitively flexible.

This certainly seems to be in line with that framework we love so much here at Third Factor, i.e., Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). The Wikipedia article goes on to state that researchers generally consider cognitive flexibility to be a component of executive function. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, the Wikipedia article defines it as higher-order cognition involving the ability to control one’s thinking. Executive functioning includes other aspects of cognition, including inhibition, memory, emotional stability, planning, and organization.

Hmm…I’ve heard those terms that come up a lot in discussions about life with emotional and intellectual overexcitability. They’re especially relevant to the effort to grow in line with that authentic conscience known in TPD as the third factor of development. No wonder Dr. Brooks’ Twitter feed caught my attention.

Brooks confirmed that the definition above is what he’s talking about. If you prefer something less academic, F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the concept well in his famous quote: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. “I love that quote,” said Brooks. “It really fits.”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

It seems a safe assumption, then, that a person who is high in cognitive flexibility would be less likely to hold an extreme position. That’s something Brooks thinks is important to overcoming stuckness. “I’m extremely against extremism, because it’s easy to become rigid when you’re on the extreme ends of something,” he said. “When you’re at that level, it starts to become part of your identity.” Our ultimate allegiance, he suggested, should be not to any identity, but to the truth. And this requires that we show enough flexibility to adapt our views based on the available information.

You Say You Want To Influence Someone

This is a challenge Brooks understands from personal experience.

“I went through a religious phase when I was younger,” he told me. “The Bible Thumpers tell you if you don’t accept Jesus, you’re gonna burn in Hell. I wasn’t that extreme, but I saw that sort of thing.” Such proselytizers wanted nonbelievers to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, but as Brooks saw it, they were not only failing to do so, they were actively driving away a number of those who might have been open to believing. “As I got older, I realized, if your goal is to move me closer to Christianity, to Jesus, you’re having the exact opposite effect by being too dogmatic and forceful,” he recalled.

anonymous woman having dispute with crop person
Photo by Liza Summer on

Here’s the thing that Brooks learned: the primary conduit through which we influence others is our relationship. It’s only superficially about the argument; it’s certainly not about being in undisputed possession of the truth. “When have you ever changed anyone’s opinion by yelling at them?” he asked “The best way to change someone’s opinion is having a relationship with them. And we don’t form a relationship by telling someone they’re an idiot, that they’re inferior to us! Listening to someone is one way to influence them.”

Now think of social media. This is not exactly how interactions tend to work on those platforms, is it? Unfortunately, those platforms are increasingly how we talk not only to distant acquaintances, but even to our loved ones. Unable to see or hear our friend or relative, we miss key details of what they’re feeling. On a text-based digital medium, it’s nearly impossible to interrupt someone to signal that they’re losing you. Moreover, these conversations are often public—broadcast to everyone we know at once—rather than carefully constructed for the person with whom we have a relationship, taking their views and values into loving consideration. We shout our righteousness into the digital crowd, which surely exacerbates our tendency to see it as our identity rather than as part of a conversation, with someone who matters to us, in collaborative pursuit of what is good and true. And when alienation and offense follow, there’s always the block button.

Brooks said he saw the same things I was seeing. “Social media doesn’t lend itself to the type of relationship that has the depth that allows the change process to happen,” he said. “We can be so quick—we don’t have to put up with it if we don’t like it. We can unfriend them. So then we end up just listening to people like ourselves. It’s not like when you’re a fan of the Steelers and I’m a Cowboys fan; it’s that you’re destroying America and my group is saving America. The over-identification with those groups—that’s destructive to society.”

Can We Be Too Flexible?

Personally, I was on board with all of what Brooks was saying about cognitive flexibility. It fits in well with the critical thinking and courage that we mention in the mission statement of Third Factor. But we also talked about balance, and about avoiding extremes. So, I wondered, is cognitive flexibility a trait where more is always better, or is there a sweet spot?

“I remember the Dalai Lama being asked this in the Art of Happiness,” Brooks replied. “He was asked, do you get too opinionated on some things? He said, ‘I have the opposite problem. I keep looking at things from so many points of view that it’s hard to form an opinion.’ I would say that the skillful way is the way that produces positive results. There are times to be rigid and steadfast—when they produce good results.”

The Dalai Lama was asked whether he got too opinionated on some things. He replied, “I have the opposite problem. I keep looking at things from so many points of view that it’s hard to form an opinion.”

Of course, as he noted, determining what counts as a good result is often a core part of the problem. “We’re constantly reassessing and seeing what produces results,” he said. “Reality’s complicated. How high should taxes be? Should we go to war? It takes humility: if we say we already know, that flies in the face of the reality that reality is really complicated,” he said.

Brooks also noted that he himself can be rigid when it comes to the need for flexibility. “That’s something I fall prey to myself at times,” he said. “If someone isn’t being flexible, I get a bit flustered.” So he was speaking from experience when he added, “We should be careful not to become too dogmatic about flexibility because then that, ironically, becomes just another form of identity and rigidity!”

Here we circled back to what I think is a key bit of wisdom for intense people who are shaken by all the suffering and injustice in the world: the Serenity Prayer. Though it’s packaged in theistic language, you don’t need to believe in God to take its message to heart: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

I’ve heard this prayer maligned and dismissed, as though it’s saying to give up. But it’s clearly not saying that at all. It urges you to have the courage to change what you can change. And that’s a huge thing!

“I’d say to your readers, try to identify the things you can do something about, and the things you need to accept,” said Brooks. “Accept doesn’t mean liking; accept means I do not have power over this thing to change it, so my best course of action is to take some deep breaths and redirect my energies. That’s agency. My power comes from not getting bogged down by all the crappy things in the world.”

Accept doesn’t mean liking; accept means I do not have power over this thing to change it. My power comes from not getting bogged down by all the crappy things in the world.

Dr. Mike Brooks

So how do you do something? For those who have got stuck in the rut of onlineness—which I’m sure is many of us, given that we’ve spent the past year in a pandemic—Brooks suggests actually going out and doing something, as soon as you feel safe doing so. We don’t have to throw out social media, but limit it to a tool to support your offline activities. Spend as much time as possible talking to real people—ideally, including a few people who are outside your filter bubble, so you aren’t just taking the online dynamic into the room you reserved for your activist group at a local library. Social dynamics become very different when you escape those charged spaces.

Of course, this will require you to do that listening thing that we talked about—because the goal, most likely, is a relationship. “A farmer in Idaho who supports Trump is not Adolph Hitler. He is not the enemy,” said Brooks.

Throughout our conversation, he was fond of using pop culture to make his points, because as he noted, all this wisdom is there to be found in it. “I go back to Star Wars—the seductive Dark Side beckoning us to say, they are wrong, this is the right way. As Yoda said, ‘Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I’d say if you are filled with anger and hatred, you’re probably—probably!—becoming part of the Dark Side. And if you’re filled with that level of anger and hatred, it’s hard to think, to be cognitively flexible. We’re in a more primal, primitive state, run by our emotions and our amygdala, not our prefrontal cortex—it’s knocked offline, and we’re not going to be able to see nuance.

Or, to paraphrase Matthew Broderick’s character said in the 1983 movie War Games: “When it comes to improving these United States of America, the only way to win this game of hate is not to play.”

Share this article: