Behavioural Set Psychology: Rigidity of thought and behaviour.

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Rigidity in psychology is behavioural set psychology and mental sets.
Rigidity in psychology is tied to behavioural set psychology and mental sets.

In this article, we examine what is rigidity psychology and its intimate relationship with behavioural set psychology and mental set psychology.

The construct of rigidity has a productive and venerable history in the field of psychology.

Systematic research on rigidity can be traced back to the Gestalt psychologists of the late 19th and early 20th century (Cattell, 1946; Chown, 1959; Lankes, 1915; Luchins & Luchins, 1994; Muller & Schumann, 1898; Spearman, 1927; Stewin, 1983).

An examination of the names associated with much of the early research on rigidity reads like an all-star roster: Raymond Cattell, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, William James, Kurt Lewin, Abraham Luchins, Milton Rokeach, Charles Spearman, and Louis Thurstone all made substantial contributions to the area.

More than 100 years of systematic study of rigidity have produced a large body of research with some clear and established findings.

However, controversies surrounding several fundamental aspects of rigidity remain.

Although the term rigidity may be somewhat out of vogue among personality and social psychologists today, we continue to see considerable interest in a range of highly related personality variables, such as flexibility, need for closure, and openness to experience.

Indeed, every major personality inventory contains a dimension similar to rigidity.

  • But what is rigidity?
  • How is it measured?
  • What are the causes and correlates of resistance to change?

For social psychologists, answers to these questions bear special importance.

Social psychologists have always been interested in behaviour change.

As presented in the following review, rigidity is the tendency of an individual not to change.

We believe that a conceptual clarification of rigidity, a summary of the tools for measuring rigidity, and an analysis of the correlates of rigidity will be useful for determining the state of knowledge about this important construct.

Despite the long history of research on rigidity, the construct continues to attract researchers from a variety of psychological disciplines (D’Aunno & Sutton, 1992; McKelvie, 1990).

An examination of published research reveals that the term rigidity continues to be commonly used by psychological researchers.

Indeed, between 1967 and 1998 the term rigidity was used in the abstracts or titles of 1,733 published articles contained in the PsycINFO database (revealed through a free-text search of WebSPIRS in 9/98 for the term rigidity).

The term continues to be current; between 1990 and 1998 it was used in the abstracts of 494 published studies.

Rigidity of thoughts.

Each of the abstracts was coded for its focus: muscular rigidity, perceptual rigidity, attitudinal rigidity, behavioural rigidity, determinants of rigidity, rigidity as a predictor variable, rigidity of animal behaviour, rigidity in organizational processes, or rigidity of measurement/theory.

An examination of the types of studies within each of these categories revealed that the term was used by researchers in a variety of psychological subdisciplines, including

  • Personality psychology (Viek, 1997)
  • Social psychology (Gruber-Baldini, Schaie, & Willis, 1995; O’Connor & Dyce, 1997)
  • Cognitive psychology (Alam & Saeeduzzafar, 1991)
  • Counseling (Glover, 1994; Mahalik, Cournoyer, DeFranc, Cherry, & Napolitano, 1998)
  • Developmental psychology (Chelune & Thompson, 1987; Everett, Thomas, Cote, Levesque, & Michaud, 1991)
  • Educational psychology (Corder & Corder, 1974; Freeman, Sawyer, & Behnke, 1997)
  • Neuropsychology (Heinrichs, 1990)
  • Organizational behavior (Miller, Droge, & Vickery, 1997; Rosman, Lubatkin, & O’Neill, 1994; VanAllen, 1994)
  • Ethology (Toates, 1997)
  • Psychopathology (Hellman, Morrison, & Abramowitz, 1987; Lennings, 1994; Rickelman & Houfek, 1995)
  • Psychotherapy (Christoph & Li, 1985; Dare et al., 1995; Mizes & Christiano, 1995).

The construct of rigidity has attracted researchers from around the world, with recent articles on rigidity published by psychologists in Africa, China, Eastern Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and Western Europe.

Clearly, the construct is alive and well in psychological research. In this article, we provide a working definition of rigidity, discuss measurement issues, review established findings using meta-analytic techniques (see Appendix), illuminate ambiguities in the research literature, and suggest directions for future research.

Psychological Bulletin article by Chown’s review.

define rigidity in psychology
How do you define rigidity in psychology?

One of the most comprehensive reviews of rigidity was provided in an often-cited Psychological Bulletin article by Sheila Chown (1959) more than 40 years ago (see also Luchins & Luchins, 1959).

At that time, Chown stated, “Few major topics in contemporary psychology appear to offer more promise than rigidity, and the amount of work reported on this subject has been increasing year by year” (p. 195).

Her article focused on definitions of rigidity, rigidity psychology tests, and experimental work involving rigidity psychology.

She concluded with three generalizations.

  1. First, she noted that at the time, a variety of instruments were available for measuring rigidity and that their commonalities were unclear.
  2. Second, she advocated a return to a physical model of rigidity, in which rigidity is defined as the ratio of environmental stress to structural strain. For example, the rigidity of a beam is measured as the amount of physical stress imposed on the beam divided by the amount of resistance to this stress.
  3. Finally, she noted that the empirical evidence suggested a multidimensional construct, but that little research had been conducted to identify the different aspects of rigidity.
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Another theme noted by Chown was the distinction between the functional and structural approaches to rigidity, a distinction articulated in earlier articles by Kounin (1948) and Werner (1946).

The structural approach viewed rigidity in terms of the amount of differentiation between “mental regions.

A person with highly defined and distinct regions was rigid, while a person with less clearly defined mental regions (i.e., more overlap between regions) was not rigid.

A functional view of rigidity, in contrast, viewed it not as a tool for organizing information, but as a way of using the information to solve problems.

Although we no longer talk about rigidity as resulting from boundaries between mental regions, the distinction between the organization of information and the use of information in problem-solving is a continuing theme in the research on rigidity.

In the 42 years since Chown’s review, researchers have addressed several of these points and uncovered new issues that need to be addressed.

Defining the psychology of rigidity.

In her 1959 review, Chown noted that the construct of rigidity had proved difficult to define.

Indeed, the term had been used to describe mental sets, extreme attitudes, ethnocentrism, stereotypy, lack of flexibility, perseveration, authoritarianism, and the inability to change habits. In her review, Chown failed to provide a coherent definition of rigidity, in part because there was no consensus among researchers.

However, in light of the focal status given her review, this omission is a serious shortcoming.

Early approaches to the study of rigidity treated it as a unidimensional continuum ranging from rigid at one end to flexible at the other.

The notion of rigidity as a unidimensional construct dates back to the late 1800s and was later articulated by Spearman (1927), who described it as “mental inertia” (Lankes, 1915; Pinard, 1932). Spearman is widely known for introducing the g factor, but it is not widely known that he also proposed a p factor (perseveration factor).

According to Spearman, g consisted of the amount of mental energy available and p was the inertia of this energy.

Prior to 1960, definitions for rigidity abounded.

Examples include:

  • Goldstein’s (1943) “adherence to a present performance in an inadequate way,
  • Werner’s (1946) “lack of variability in response,”
  • Rokeach’s (1948) “inability to change one’s set when the objective conditions demand it,
  • Buss’s (1952) “resistance to shifting from old to new discriminations.

In their comprehensive survey of the literature, Luchins and Luchins (1959) listed 34 factors identified in various studies, many of which were conceptually similar.

And they ruefully noted that “one investigator seldom relates the factors he promulgates to those in other studies” (p. 94).

Clearly, at the time of Chown’s review, there was no consensus as to how to define rigidity.

A useful development since 1959 has been Rokeach’s The Open and Closed Mind (1960). Summarizing the wide range of approaches to the construct, Rokeach defined rigidity as a resistance to change in beliefs, attitudes, or personal habits.

The usefulness of this definition is its multidimensional nature.

Rigidity is not simply the perseveration of behaviour on a behavioural task but can be divided into cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioural components.

Rokeach used the term dogmatism to refer to resistance to change in a person’s belief system. Rigidity refers to single beliefs (or habits), whereas dogmatism refers to a system of beliefs.

Despite Rokeach’s attempt to provide clarification, a 1967 summary of the literature reached a conclusion similar to Chown’s: Leach (1967) stated, “A large amount of effort has been devoted to the study of rigidity … yet there is still little agreement as to its identity or its components” (p. 11).

Research in the last 42 years has by no means converged on a consensus regarding the nature of rigidity, partly, we think, because of the multidimensional nature of the construct.

Our review of the last 100 years of the psychological literature does, however, suggest that a comprehensive definition of rigidity must contain several key elements.

Ridigity is mental of behavioural set psychology.

rigidity is mental set psychology or behavioural set psychology
In psychology, rigidity is mental set psychology or behavioural set psychology

First, rigidity involves the formation of a mental or behavioural set (Chown, 1959; Rokeach, 1948; Sarmany-Schuller, 1994; Stewin, 1983; Vollhardt, 1990).

By set, we mean a learned mental or behavioural pattern that forms through repeated experience in a given situation (Luchins, 1942; Luchins & Luchins, 1959, 1994).

Mental sets are expectations about future events (including attitudes, beliefs, expectancies, and schemas), whereas behavioural sets are patterns of observable responses.

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Second, rigidity involves the perseveration of these sets which means the continuation of the set in the face of pressure to change (Goldberg, 1986; Goldberg & Tucker, 1979; Luchins & Luchins, 1994; Sandson & Albert, 1984).

Pressure to change can come from a variety of sources, including (a) the realization that the set is no longer effective, efficient, or appropriate for the current situation; or (b) pressure from an external agent indicating that change is desirable.

We define rigidity as the tendency to develop and perseverate in the use of mental or behavioural sets.

Thus, there are two steps in the rigidity process: set formation and set perseveration (Guetzkow, 1951; Taylor & McNemar, 1955).

Presumably, these two steps are positively correlated such that a person who quickly forms a set is likely to perseverate in its use (Luchins & Luchins, 1982).

Similarly, a person who quickly forms a mental set should also be likely to quickly form a behavioural set.

Note that our definition incorporates the distinction that researchers used to make between structural rigidity and functional rigidity.

What we have referred to as the tendency to develop a set is similar to structural rigidity, and the tendency to perseverate in the use of a set is similar to functional rigidity.

Perseveration and habit.

One important distinction is between perseveration and habit.

Habit definition.

A habit is a typical pattern of behaviour–that is, a habit is a behavioural set.

Habits are behavioural sets that occur largely without reflection.

Examples of habits.

Examples of habits might include daily routines such as routes to work or (for U.S. drivers) driving on the right side of the road.

Perseverate and rigidity.

In and of themselves, habits are not rigid; it is only when a behavioural pattern perseverates in the face of pressure to change that it meets our definition of rigidity.

So, consider the case of a U.S. automobile driver who travels to England where it is customary to drive on the left side of the road.

If, after several driving excursions, the driver is still unable (or unwilling) to adapt to the new prevailing rules of the road, then this would reflect rigidity and not a habit.

Measuring rigidity.

Although our review of the literature suggests the emergence of some agreement on the definition of rigidity, it is not surprising given the multidimensional nature of the construct that no universally acknowledged and accepted ways to measure it exists.

Further, there has been little research aimed at establishing the relationship among the existing techniques (Joshi, 1974).

Many researchers, dissatisfied with the available instruments, create idiosyncratic measures of rigidity, reporting only minimal descriptions of the materials or procedures.

Indeed, Chown’s review identified 47 measures of rigidity, and since that time, many additional measures have been developed.

More recently, some researchers have moved away from the term rigidity and instead have adopted labels such as the personal need for structure, need for closure, openness, or flexibility.

In the next section, we will briefly introduce 11 measures of rigidity divided into two categories: 7 questionnaire measures and 4 perseveration measures.

Questionnaire measures of rigidity in psychology.

By far the most widely used procedure for measuring rigidity is to ask respondents to rate statements on a Likert-type scale.

These scales are easily administered to many respondents simultaneously and have the advantage of providing estimates for internal reliability.

In this section, we review seven questionnaire measures of constructs that assess either the tendency to form or perseverate on the use of a mental or behavioural set.

Breskin Rigidity Test.

The Breskin Rigidity Test is based on the Gestalt Laws of Pragnanz and measures individual differences in the tendency to form a perceptual set (Breskin, 1968, 1969; Breskin, Gorman, & Hochman, 1970; Breskin & Rich, 1971).

Respondents are presented with pairs of images, one of which has “good form,” the other of which does not.

Respondents are asked to select the one that they prefer.

Examples of item pairs from the scale include an equilateral triangle (good form) versus an isosceles triangle or a complete circle (good form) versus an incomplete circle.

Recent research with the scale has found it to be a good predictor of perceptual organization and to have good internal consistency (Beer, 1989; Cunningham, Ridley, & Campbell, 1988; Maltby & Lewis, 1996).

However, several articles in the 1970s suggested that the term perceptual rigidity was a misnomer.

In examining the relationship between the Breskin scale and performance on standard reversible figures tasks (like the Necker Cube or the Rubin Vase) that require a change in the perceptual set, several studies found nonsignificant effects (Joshi, 1974; Primavera, Simon, & Hochman, 1974).

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Primavera et al. argued that the Breskin scale measures “obsessive cognitive rigidity” and not “perceptual rigidity.

However, to date, no published study has examined the link between perceptual rigidity and other measures of rigidity, and at face value, the term “perceptual rigidity” seems appropriate.

California Personality Inventory-Flexibility (CPI; Gough & Bradley, 1996).

The flexibility subscale of the CPI was developed to measure rigidity-flexibility of personality that was unassociated with political ideology.

The first version of the scale, known as the Gough Rigidity scale, was incorporated into the CPI in 1956.

People scoring high on flexibility are described as imaginative, spontaneous, and able to adapt to change and the unexpected. They are also described as inconsistent and undependable.

People who score low on the scale are described as serious, stubborn, and inflexible.

Factor analyses of the 28 items have revealed a complex pattern.

Gough and Bradley reported seven factors from a norm sample of 6,000 people.

However, there is very little published research on the factors of the flexibility scale.

Intolerance of Ambiguity Scale.

Budner (1962) defined intolerance of ambiguity as “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as sources of threat” and tolerance of ambiguity as “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable” (p. 29).

The 16-item scale measures individual differences in desire for certainty (Durrheim, 1995).

However, the research literature on rigidity and intolerance of ambiguity are so closely related that, quite often, the two constructs are treated as synonymous.

Need for Closure Scale (NFCS; Kruglanski, Webster, & Klern, 1993).

The 42-item NFCS measures individual differences in preferences for order and structure and the abhorrence of disorder and chaos.

The scale measures five correlated subsets labelled preference for structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness, predictability, and closed-mindedness.

Research by Kruglanski and his colleagues confirmed the five-factor structure and demonstrated reasonable predictive ability.

For instance, the scale distinguishes “artistic types” from “conventional types,” predicts individual differences in the tendency to show the primacy effect, is positively correlated with the tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error and is positively correlated with resistance to persuasion. (Several items from the Personal Need for Structure Scale, described below, are included in the NFCS.)

Openness to experience.

Openness to experience is one of the personality dimensions included in the Five-Factor Model of personality (McCrae, 1996; McCrae & Costa, 1996).

Openness is a broad and general dimension that includes a preference for novelty, cognitive complexity, and flexibility.

In contrast, closedness is manifested in a preference for familiarity, simplicity, and closure.

Personal Need for Structure (PNS; Neuberg & Newsom, 1993, Study 3).

Personal need for structure refers to individual differences in preference for cognitive simplicity and structure.

Measured with a 12-item scale, the PNS represents the degree to which people are motivated to structure their worlds in simple and unambiguous ways.

Factor analyses of the scale have revealed two factors labelled Desire for Structure and Response to Lack of Structure.

Research suggests that high PNS is associated with a greater tendency to stereotype (Neuberg & Newsom; Schaller, Boyd, Yohannes, & O’Brien, 1995), a greater tendency to categorize new information (Moskowitz, 1993), a tendency to create less complex categories for objects (Neuberg & Newsom, 1993, Study 3), and a tendency to develop mental sets under stressful conditions (Schultz & Searleman, 1998).

Test of Behavioral Rigidity (TBR).

Schaie (1955), in a paper that was not cited in Chown’s (1959) review, distinguished between “motor-cognitive flexibility,” and “personality-perceptual flexibility.

Schaie reported the results from a factor analysis of eight instruments that showed three distinct factors.

  1. The first is Psychomotor Speed, which refers to the speed with which a person responds to a familiar situation. As this does not measure rigidity per se, results from this variable were not included in our review.
  2. The second factor identified by Schaie was the Personality-Perceptual component, which was defined as “ideational inertia” and measured with a series of true-false questions drawn from early self-report scales of mental flexibility (Schaie, Dutta, & Willis, 1991; Schaie & Parham, 1975). This factor reflects an individual’s ability to adjust readily to new surroundings. More recently, this factor has been termed “attitudinal flexibility” (see Schaie, 1996).
  3. The third factor of rigidity that Schaie identified is Motor-Cognitive (discussed in the Measures of Perseverative Rigidity section that follows).

Motor-Cognitive is a person’s ability to shift without difficulty from one activity to another, the behavioural aspect of rigidity.

An 8-year longitudinal study of rigidity using covariance structural models found support for the identity of unique cognitive and behavioural factors (Schaie et al., 1991).

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