As the authors of the study point out in their introduction, conservative political ideology in Western democracies has several identifying components, “including an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”
Interestingly, those components have also been linked to “low-effort” thinking — in other words, to the kind of automatic thinking all of us do when we’re not putting much awareness or effort into the process.
The study’s authors, led by psychologist Scott Eidelman of the University of Arkansas, wondered, therefore, if “taxing, limiting or otherwise disengaging effortful, deliberative thought” would make people more likely to accept conservative attitudes and values.
The answer, at least from this study, appears to be a resounding “yes.”
The study included four separate experiments. The first one was conducted in vivo (as the researchers put it) in a bar to take “advantage of alcohol consumption as a common and powerful means of disrupting deliberative thought.”
Eighty-five bar patrons agreed to complete a short survey about their social attitudes in exchange for having their blood alcohol count measured by a breathalyzer. (Why the bar patrons considered this an incentive for participating in the study is not explained.) An analysis of the data revealed that the greater the patrons’ intoxication (and, thus, the lower their capacity for deliberative thought) the more conservative their answers to the survey — and this was true among those who leaned to the political left as well as for those who leaned to the political right.
In the second experiment, conducted this time in a laboratory, 38 undergraduates were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their social attitudes. Half of them were randomly assigned to do so while working on a task meant to distract them. (They had to count changing sound tones.) The other half served as a control group. Those who were distracted (whose brains had to work on the two tasks simultaneously) expressed more conservative views than those who didn’t have that “cognitive load.”
Why? “Because cognitive load depletes available mental resources, participants were left to draw more heavily on thinking that was easy and efficient,” explained the study’s authors. “We maintain that this thinking promotes political conservatism. Cognitive load also produced a corresponding shift in liberal attitudes; when under load, participants’ endorsement of political liberalism decreased.”
Time pressure also interferes with effortful thinking. So, in the third experiment, 18 undergraduates were asked to respond to various political terms and phrases (law and order,labor unions, private property, civil rights) while under a time crunch while another 18 (the control group) were permitted to take as much time as they wanted. The endorsement of conservative terms and phrases increased when the time limit was imposed.
In the fourth experiment, 34 undergraduates were once again presented with various political terms and phrases. Half were instructed to “think hard about each term before responding. Don’t give your first response. Instead, really put forth effort and consider the issue. Take your time and give a careful and thoughtful response.” The others were told to “give your first, immediate response to the terms. Don’t think too hard about your response; don’t debate yourself. Instead, go quickly and give your first, initial response to the terms as soon as you read them.” Unlike in experiment 3, however, no external time limits were imposed.
The experiment found that undergraduates who were permitted to “think hard” about the terms tended to respond less conservatively than those who were told to respond quickly.
What it means
All four experiments support “the assertion that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism,” conclude the study’s authors.
Please note, though, that the study’s authors offer this further clarification about what the finding actually means:
Many have suggested that liberals and conservatives differ in the way they think, with those on the right of the political spectrum thought to process information in more simple-minded terms. This hypothesis has support, but is not our claim. We argue that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism, not that conservatives rely on low-effort thought. [Emphasis is in the study.] Similarly, we do not assert that conservatives fail to engage in effortful, deliberative thought but rather that disengagement of effortful thinking leads to cognitions consonant with political conservatism.
For those who want to read the full study, you can access it free online.