Cognitive Polyphasia

The concept of “cognitive polyphasia” is attributable to the Romanian social psychologist Serge Moscovici and is explained in his book ‘Social Representations‘ (Polity, 2000)

It is the idea that individuals can simultaneously hold contradictory cognitions (understandings) of the same object, situation or choice.

I first came across this idea in a speech given by Ben Page, who used it to explain why his public opinion research organization often got contradictory results in its polls.

I asked Ben about it afterwards, but he didn’t know where the concept originated. A bit of digging revealed Moscovici’s work: “not only within different societies, but also within the same individuals, there coexist incompatible ways of thinking and representations.” Indeed, he goes on to say that such cognitive polyphasia “is a normal state of affairs in ordinary life and in communication.”

Moscovici is, of course, not using the four contradictory social instincts suggested in this work. But his idea does help to explain how humans manage, psychologically, to deal simultaneously with mutually exclusive ways of thinking about social relations?