Interview with Małgorzata Kossowska

This interview with Małgorzata Kossowska was conducted on the 28th of May, 2021. It deals with many topics, including Kossowska’s branching out from pure cognitive psychology to a broader interdisciplinary approach, her views about the social significance of research on knowledge resistance, and her own current research within this area. The interviewer is Knowledge Resistance‘s project administrator, Alexander Stathopoulos. Interview questions are in bold text.

Małgorzata Kossowska

I thought I’d start by asking you about your background. Could you briefly describe, both personally and intellectually, where you’re coming from and how you ended up in the Knowledge Resistance project?

Generally, my current work is about the cognitive and motivational dynamics that shape cognitive responses to the social and political environment.

It’s about how people select information, and how they use it to form opinions and judgments. I study the motivational and social drivers of these processes.

I am a social psychologist, but I have a cognitive background. For many years, I worked on cognitive processes involved in problem-solving and decision-making in a non-social domain. I mainly focused on cognitive factors such as working memory capacity, selective attention, or executive functions. In addition, I was interested in the formal aspects of knowledge formation and its cognitive underpinnings.

Eventually, I realized the limitations of a purely cognitive approach. I noticed how hard it would be to apply this work to understand how people solve everyday problems, make daily choices, or use knowledge in social contexts.

So, I started investigating the role of personality, motivational, and social factors. I got my first postdoc in a motivational lab at the University of Maryland. It was an essential step in my scientific development. 

“A massive social experiment – Eldorado for social scientists.”

But there was also another – socio-cultural – factor that shaped my current scientific approach. I started working in academia in 1992. That was a few years after communism in Poland collapsed, and Poland was in a challenging social and political transition. That was one massive social experiment – Eldorado for social scientists.

Understanding how people behave in various political contexts, form political beliefs, and make social and political choices or respond to social novelty was crucial to understanding what was going on. I was well prepared to investigate political beliefs and their role in shaping behaviors with my cognitive background.

So, your work is partially about how motivations can play into various types of attitudes and beliefs, even political beliefs? 

It’s a part of it. I mainly research motivated cognition, i.e., how motivation and cognition interwind in shaping beliefs. Thus, it is not only about “cognition which has motivational roots”. I study the way people select information, process it, and use it as a basis for judgments or decision-making. I am also interested in what conditions (and how) different motives are initiated. Individual differences were an essential part of my work as well. 

“Multiple areas may be working on closely related questions with little knowledge of one another.”

I tried to explain complex social phenomena (like political or religious beliefs, extremism, social conflict). Thus, as a cognitive psychologist, I always needed collaboration with researchers from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, political sciences, economy, and neuroscience).

Doing this, I realized how much we live in silos: multiple areas may be working on closely related questions with little knowledge of one another. The mere choice of a label may render a phenomenon entirely opaque to relevant researchers.

For example, when colleagues from media or political sciences used the term “motivated reasoning”, they always thought about biased cognition. In psychology, motivated reasoning can be biased, but it’s not an integral part of the definition of motivated reasoning.

Right, so working in the Knowledge Resistance project there’s actually an opportunity there for you to ‘help each other out’ so to speak. 

Exactly.

I think we’re in a learning phase at this point. This also refers to work within the Knowledge Resistance project. At the internal meetings, workshops, where we present our work and our conceptualization, there’s an excellent opportunity to realize that it’s not always the same thing we’re talking about. 

I’ve been involved in other interdisciplinary projects where we’ve struggled for years to prepare the common ground for discussion and a deep understanding of each other. It sounds like a waste of time, but actually, it is essential. If we’d like to explain some complex phenomena, we need to start collaborating. 

In the beginning, I am constantly frustrated and feel that I am losing time, and I am not as effective as I could be, but eventually, I always find that it’s worth doing.

Would you like to talk about the political impact of this type of work – do you feel like this type of work has political import and in what way? Does it have a practical application, or an outreach potential – that you could somehow inform people how they might be making mistakes in their thinking, for example? Or is there some other type of impact or importance to these things, in a political or social context? 

I would like to believe that at least in some countries, decision-makers are concerned about the public good, want to make good decisions based on the best evidence, and fairly communicate certain things to ensure they are correctly understood. They need to know what to do.

“Our work helps to understand what makes people more accepting of authoritarian ideas.”

Our work helps to understand what makes people more accepting of authoritarian or populist ideas, and why some reject science, holding unsupported views about the world.

It also demonstrates what to do to make people more immunized for fake news and misinformation. This type of work has significant practical potential and could be used “for the public good”. 

But obviously, this knowledge can also be misused, used for evil or instrumental reasons (e.g., to keep power). We have many such examples nowadays.

So do you find that it’s a new role for science experts, talking about who’s credible or reliable on a certain topic, or which blogs are by real scientists and which are by a random person, what’s more fringe idea and what’s mostly agreed-upon, how to understand statistics, scientific results, and so on?

Indeed, some interesting dynamics are emerging with the concept of scientific expertise. Decision-makers claim to have been “following the science” in their decisions. In practice, of course, “following the science” isn’t quite so simple. Nowadays, there is a huge demand for experts and their expertise: from policymakers, the media, and other scientists. Capacity limitations put continuous pressure on individuals to pronounce beyond their core competence.  At the same time, in polarized societies like the US or Polish societies, you can always find experts who will support various political options. That is dangerous. Misguided “expert” opinions may damage public trust in science.

Back to you and your work, what are you going to be working on when we leave this call, next week or whatever? What are you interested in at the moment intellectually speaking?

Within the Knowledge Resistance project, my colleagues and I are working on three topics.

One is related to how ideology shapes trust in scientists and attitudes towards vaccination. In three studies, we demonstrated that under conditions of threat related to the COVID-19 pandemic, ideology is an important predictor of trust in scientists, as compared between prepandemic and pandemic attitudes and beliefs. We also found that, under threat conditions, right- (vs. left) wing adherents place less trust in scientists even though their fear of being infected by SARS-Cov-2 is greater. The mechanism responsible for this effect is the perception of scientists as elite members, which is characteristic of right-wingers but not of left-wingers. Finally, we found that where an individual sits on the left–right ideological spectrum predicts their level of trust in scientists; this, in turn, helps to explain individual-level variation in pro-vaccine attitudes. We have also shown that ideology has an additional direct effect on vaccine beliefs and attitudes towards vaccines and vaccine policies, with right-wingers being less positive towards vaccination.

“Ideology has a direct effect on attitudes towards vaccines.”

The other line of research is related to the cognitive and motivational basis of the inaccuracy of actual beliefs and the role of ideology in that. Across three studies, we provide support for the protective cognition account by showing that ideology is linked with the accuracy assessment of policy-relevant facts. We believe that this phenomenon can best be explained by positing that policy-relevant facts, which are associated with membership in a political group, trigger the goal of protecting one’s identity. As with other social-identity processes, ideology powerfully motivates the process of establishing factual beliefs by making assessments in line with those held by their group. 

The third line is about beliefs changing or updating. We test if participants update their beliefs when faced with challenging evidence regardless of their political beliefs. In other words, we expect symmetry in belief updating between right- and left-wingers. However, this change will be larger for the non-political vs. the political issues. This series of studies is in progress.

Apart from that, I’m working on open-mindedness and conditions which make people more open, even if they are motivated to behave in close-minded ways. The project focuses on cognitive and motivational mechanisms of open-mindedness, but also we’d like to do field experiments and some medium-scale interventions. 

Sounds like all of these things are connected to knowledge resistance broadly speaking.

As I said above, everything I’ve been doing since I started working in academia is about the knowledge formation process and its cognitive and motivational underpinnings. If you would like to understand knowledge resistance, i.e.,  the failure to accept available knowledge, you need to investigate how knowledge is formed and used.