Rigidity (psychology)

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In psychology, rigidity or mental rigidity refers to an obstinate inability to yield or a refusal to appreciate another person's viewpoint or emotions characterized by a lack of empathy.[1] It can also refer to the tendency to perseverate, which is the inability to change habits and the inability to modify concepts and attitudes once developed.[2]

A specific example of rigidity is functional fixedness, which is a difficulty conceiving new uses for familiar objects.[3]


Rigidity is an ancient part of our human cognition.[4] Systematic research on rigidity can be found tracing back to Gestalt psychologists, going as far back as the late 19th to early 20th century with Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka in Germany.[4][5] With more than 100 years of research on the matter there is some established and clear data. Nonetheless, there is still much controversy surrounding several of the fundamental aspects of rigidity. In the early stages of approaching the idea of rigidity, it is treated as "a unidimensional continuum ranging from rigid at one end to flexible at the other". This idea dates back to the 1800s and was later articulated by Charles Spearman who described it as mental inertia. Prior to 1960 many definitions for the term rigidity were afloat. One example includes Kurt Goldstein's, which he stated, "adherence to a present performance in an inadequate way", another being Milton Rokeach saying the definition was, "[the] inability to change one's set when the objective conditions demand it".[6] Others have simplified rigidity down to stages for easy defining.[7] Generally, it is agreed upon that it is evidenced by the identification of mental or behavioral sets.[4]

Lewin and Kounin also proposed a theory of cognitive rigidity (also called Lewin-Kounin formulation) based on a Gestalt perspective and they used it to explain a behavior in mentally retarded persons that is inflexible, repetitive, and unchanging.[8] The theory proposed that it is caused by a greater "stiffness" or impermeability between inner-personal regions of individuals, which influence behavior.[8] Rigidity was particularly explored in Lewin's views regarding the degree of differentiation among children. He posited that a mentally retarded child can be distinguished from the normal child due to the smaller capacity for dynamic rearrangement in terms of his psychical systems.[9]

Mental set[edit]

Mental sets represent a form of rigidity in which an individual behaves or believes in a certain way due to prior experience.[10] It's a type of cognitive bias that can lead people to make assumptions about how they should solve problems without taking into account all the information available.[11] The opposite of this is termed cognitive flexibility. These mental sets may not always be consciously recognized by the bearer.[12] In the field of psychology, mental sets are typically examined in the process of problem solving,[13] with an emphasis on the process of breaking away from particular mental sets into formulation of insight. Breaking mental sets in order to successfully resolve problems fall under three typical stages: a) tendency to solve a problem in a fixed way, b) unsuccessfully solving a problem using methods suggested by prior experience, and c) realizing that the solution requires different methods.[10] Components of high executive functioning, such as the interplay between working memory and inhibition, are essential to effective switching between mental sets for different situations.[14] Individual differences in mental sets vary, with one study producing a variety of cautious and risky strategies in individual responses to a reaction time test.[15]


Rigidity can be a learned behavioral trait, for example if the subject has a parent, boss or teacher who demonstrated the same form of behavior towards them.[citation needed] Rigidity is also associated with autism spectrum conditions, and has a genetic component.[16]


Rigidity has three different main "stages" of severity, although it never has to move to further stages.[7] The first stage is a strict perception that causes one to persist in their ways and be close-minded to other things.[7] The second involves a motive to defend the ego.[7] The third stage is that it is a part of one's personality and you can see it in their perception, cognition, and social interactions.[7]


We often see traits that occur alongside rigidity.

Accompanying externalizing behaviors[edit]

They could be external behaviors, such as the following:[17]

  • Insistently repetitious behavior
  • Difficulty with unmet expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Compulsions (as in OCD)
  • Perseveration

Accompanying internalizing behaviors[edit]

Internalizing behaviors also are shown:[17]

  • Perfectionism
  • Obsessions (as in OCD)

Manifestations of rigidity[edit]

Associated conditions[edit]

Cognitive closure[edit]

Mental rigidity often features a high need for cognitive closure, meaning that they assign explanations prematurely to things with a determination that this is truth, finding that resolution of the dissonance as reassuring as finding the truth.[18] Then, there is little reason to correct their unconscious misattributions if it would bring uncertainty back.

Autism spectrum disorder[edit]

Cognitive rigidity is one feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is included in what's called the Broader Autism Phenotype, where a collection of autistic traits still fail to reach the level of ASD. This is one example of how rigidity does not show up as a single trait, but comes with a number of related traits.[17][19]

Obsessive-compulsive disorder[edit]




Rigidity may be a cause of ethnocentrism. In one study, M. Rokeach tested for ethnocentrism's relatedness to mental rigidity by using the California Ethnocentrism Scale (when measuring American college students' views) and the California Attitude Scale (when measuring children's views) before they were given what is called by cognitive scientists "the water jar problem." This problem teaches students a set pattern for how to solve each one. Those that scored higher in ethnocentrism also showed attributes of rigidity such as persistence of mental sets and more complicated thought processes.[20]

Strategies for overcoming rigidity[edit]

Consequences of unfulfillment[edit]

If a person with cognitive rigidity does not fulfill their rigidly held expectations, the following could occur:[17]

  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidality

These are clearly maladaptive, and so there are other ways to overcome this:

Use of The Power of TED* & The Winner's Triangle are both Therapeutic models that use the Karpman_drama_triangle derived from Transactional Analysis


  1. ^ Aquilar, Francesco; Galluccio, Mauro (2007). Psychological Processes in International Negotiations: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. New York: Springer Science & Business Media. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-387-71378-6.
  2. ^ Stewin, Len (September 1983). "The concept of rigidity: an enigma". International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling. 6 (3): 227–232. doi:10.1007/BF00124273. ISSN 0165-0653. S2CID 145255372.
  3. ^ Davis, Stephen F.; Palladino, Joseph J. (2007). Psychology. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 331. ISBN 978-0-13-220840-6.
  4. ^ a b c Johnson, David W.; Johnson, Roger T. (November 2005). "New Developments in Social Interdependence Theory". Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs. 131 (4): 285–358. doi:10.3200/mono.131.4.285-358. ISSN 8756-7547. PMID 17191373. S2CID 12237349.
  5. ^ Ash, Mitchell G. (1998-10-13). Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-64627-7.
  6. ^ Chris, McCarron (17 January 2022). "Behavioural Set Psychology: Rigidity of thought and behaviour".
  7. ^ a b c d e LEACH, PENELOPE JANE (February 1967). "A Critical Study of the Literature Concerning Rigidity". British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 6 (1): 11–22. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8260.1967.tb00494.x. ISSN 0007-1293. PMID 5341255.
  8. ^ a b MacLean Jr, William (2012). Ellis' Handbook of Mental Deficiency, Psychological Theory and Research, Third Edition. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 175–176. ISBN 978-1-136-48078-2.
  9. ^ Zigler, E.; Balla, D. (2013). Mental Retardation: The Developmental-difference Controversy. Hillsdale, NJ: Routledge. p. 62. ISBN 978-0898591705.
  10. ^ a b Zhao, Yufang; Tu, Shen; Lei, Ming; Qiu, Jiang; Ybarra, Oscar; Zhang, Qinglin (2011). "The neural basis of breaking mental set: an event-related potential study". Experimental Brain Research. 208 (2): 181–187. doi:10.1007/s00221-010-2468-z. PMID 21046365. S2CID 18608834.
  11. ^ GoGoChimp (2021-12-11). "Why Mental Set Psychology is Crucial for Great Website UX". GoGoChimp. Retrieved 2022-01-09.
  12. ^ Juola, James F.; Hergenhahn, B. R. (July 1968). "Effects of Training Level, Type of Training, and Awareness on the Establishment of Mental Set in Anagram Solving". The Journal of Psychology. 69 (2): 155–159. doi:10.1080/00223980.1968.10543460. ISSN 0022-3980. PMID 5667447.
  13. ^ Beeman, Mark Jung; Chiarello, Christine (1998). Right Hemisphere Language Comprehension: Perspectives From Cognitive Neuroscience. Mahwah, NJ: Psychology Press. p. 354. ISBN 0805819258.
  14. ^ Brocki, Karin (November–December 2014). "Mental set shifting in childhood: The role of working memory and inhibitory control". Infant and Child Development. 23 (6): 588–604. doi:10.1002/icd.1871.
  15. ^ Winkler, Alissa D.; Hu, Sien; Li, Chiang-shan R. (2013). "The influence of risky and conservative mental sets on cerebral activations of cognitive control". International Journal of Psychophysiology. 87 (3): 254–261. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2012.08.010. PMC 3511622. PMID 22922525.
  16. ^ Bralten, J.; van Hulzen, K. J.; Martens, M. B.; Galesloot, T. E.; Arias Vasquez, A.; Kiemeney, L. A.; Buitelaar, J. K.; Muntjewerff, J. W.; Franke, B.; Poelmans, G. (May 2018). "Autism spectrum disorders and autistic traits share genetics and biology". Molecular Psychiatry. 23 (5): 1205–1212. doi:10.1038/mp.2017.98. ISSN 1476-5578. PMC 5984081. PMID 28507316.
  17. ^ a b c d "Cognitive Rigidity: The 8-Ball from Hell". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2020-04-10.
  18. ^ "Mental Rigidity". Exploring your mind. 2016-07-12. Retrieved 2020-04-10.
  19. ^ Poljac, Edita; Hoofs, Vincent; Princen, Myrthe M.; Poljac, Ervin (March 2017). "Understanding Behavioural Rigidity in Autism Spectrum Conditions: The Role of Intentional Control". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 47 (3): 714–727. doi:10.1007/s10803-016-3010-3. ISSN 0162-3257. PMID 28070785. S2CID 38180833.
  20. ^ Rokeach, Milton (1948). "Generalized mental rigidity as a factor in ethnocentrism". The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 43 (3): 259–278. doi:10.1037/h0056134. ISSN 0096-851X. PMID 18878208.

See also[edit]