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Is political conservatism our ‘default mode’?

Citizens of Western democracies may naturally gravitate toward political conservatism.

Could political conservatism be our “default” mode — the ideas we embrace when we’re in a hurry, distracted, or, um, drunk?

Apparently so, according to the findings of an intriguing new study published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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.”

Experiment #1

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.

Experiment #2

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.”

Experiment #3

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.

Experiment #4

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.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/11/2012 - 09:15 am.

    This aligns well with other studies

    showing that conservatives, in general, test out as having lower IQs and as being more fearful than their liberal counterparts. I can see a predeliction for low-effort thought connecting the two.

  2. Submitted by Lee Jones on 04/11/2012 - 09:22 am.

    This study is interesting, although not too surprising – and I’m sure Conservatives have known this is the case for many years. Why else would U.S. Conservative politicians have spent years screaming down the megaphone about abortion, gay marriage and contraception? While America spends its time debating such issues that don’t affect most people’s day-to-ay lives, the right is allowed to carry on winning votes that allow them to fleece the people and moving the country’s wealth towards the 1%.

    If you speak to anyone their main concerns for America, and for the government are jobs, economy, security, education, healthcare – the things government should have a say in. If people were pre-occupied with these issues our schools would be functioning, infrastructure would be built and less people would be hungry. So why are the airwaves and the national debates centered around Victorian morality and puritanical views towards procreation?? This study proves why – keep people preoccupied with the little things (i.e. if two loving same sex people can sign a sheet of paper) while the big things (pensions, schools, social security) and ripped from under us.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/11/2012 - 09:55 am.

    Common Sense

    On this question, I want you to think hard, and on the next question, I don’t want you to think hard. That is some hard-hitting science ya got there in that study.

    The study’s “findings” clearly appeals to liberals because it is insulting to conservatives. These are the same liberals that claim that the political discourse has become uncivilized. These are the same liberals that decry bullying, while calling their political opponents stupid (low effort thinkers), and claiming they have scientific proof.

    Yes, the conservative ideal, built on freedom and personal liberty is obvious. It still appeals to those Americans who have not jettisoned their common sense.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/11/2012 - 10:03 am.

    The right-wing propaganda machine knows exactly what it is doing

    They’re waving flags and Bibles in people’s faces while picking their pockets. They know exactly how to aim for the gut.

    We live in a nation where the teaching of high school history and government is fobbed off on the football coach to keep him busy during the day and where textbooks are written to accommodate the prejudices of the few Texans who determine which books will be used in their huge state.

    People may know something about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and a lot about World War II, thanks to television’s fascination with the topic, but in most people’s minds, the years between 1865 and 1941 are a blank. They don’t know how things were before “big government” and unions gave working people a chance at a decent life.

    Even less do they know that people in other parts of the world–not only in the right-wing whipping boy countries of Greece, Spain, and Italy–but also in the prosperous countries of Scandinavia–enjoy better social benefits, longer vacations, health care and education that will never bankrupt an individual, excellent public transit, greater social mobility than the U.S., and low crime rates, despite high levels of immigration (another right-wing excuse for the deterioration in our quality of life).

    In essence, when it comes to quality of life issues, most Americans are blank slates. The right wing realized this thirty years ago, when it tied in with the fundamentalist megachurches, many of whom preach a form of “Christianity” that is completely unsupported by the Bible or Christian traditions.

    The true left wing, anyone who is a Democratic Socialist or anything to the left of that, has no real power in America, and contrary to what the radio ranters claim about “far left Marxism,” the present-day Democratic Party is somewhere in Nixon’s ideological territory. Here, too, the right-wing machine takes advantage of public ignorance. Your average American has no idea what Socialism, Communism, and Marxism are, only that they are supposed to be bad. These terms therefore become convenient labels to pin onto any policy or idea that a pundit doesn’t like, even if no Socialist, Communist, or Marxist has ever proposed them (case in point: Obama’s health care plan, which relies almost entirely on compulsory purchase of *private insurance*).

    The tepid Democrats have been asleep for the past thirty years, and I can’t help noticing that media figures complain about “polarization” and “a decline in civility” only when left-of-center figures take an aggressive stance. These same corporate media figures also feel obligated to say that the present-day Democrats are as far left as the Republicans are far right, even though this is completely untrue. Viewed by the standards of most of Europe, the Democrats are centrist to conservative, while the Republicans are headed toward fascism.

    Unless the Democrats rediscover their inner FDR, their inner LBJ, and their inner Wellstone, as well as acquiring some PR smarts and dumping their compromised Republican Lite colleagues, they will be nothing more than enablers of this country’s rightward slide.

  5. Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/11/2012 - 10:05 am.

    So sorry, Steve

    I didn’t conduct the experiments. It is what it is. Blast the facts for having a liberal bias!

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/11/2012 - 10:30 am.

      Actually, you are not


      News flash: you can right an interview study to reach any conclusion you choose. “On this question, don’t think hard; on this question, think medium-hard; on this question, think real hard, OK?” Is that how the human brain works?

      At some point soft science turns to mush. But, if the “findings” support your notions, it is gold!

      • Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/11/2012 - 11:14 am.

        Note that was one out of the 4 experiments

        Throw it out — and you still have drunk and distracted people thinking more conservatively than sober and concentrated ones.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/11/2012 - 12:52 pm.

          Which Indicates What?

          Basic instincts trump over-thinking and self-doubt? Rational thought trumps emotional thought?

          • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 04/11/2012 - 03:05 pm.

            Rational or Emotional

            Which side are you saying is rational and which is emotional? Apparently you would be siding with emotional thought, given that you are criticizing the study for being unfair to conservatives, and the study results would best be characterized on the basis of your emotional/rational dichotomy as emotional = conservative; rational = liberal, but correct me if I’m wrong. If you are saying that emotional thought trumps rational thought, how can you and I ever agree on anything except by coincidence? How can I persuade you except by either being disingenuous about my emotions or by having the same emotions as you?

            • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/11/2012 - 03:46 pm.

              Rational Thought

              If you deliberate the issue, emotions such as guilt will start to color your thinking. Rational thinking is default, given enough time your emotions (and liberals friends) may lead you in a different direction.

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/11/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    that’s two

    Steve, that’s two comments where you grossly mischaracterized what they did: “On this question, don’t think hard; on this question, think medium-hard; on this question, think real hard, OK?” The study was nothing like that, but I think you know that. If I’m wrong, great, go back and re-read it. However, this seems to be the crux of your objection, and it’s factually wrong.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/11/2012 - 01:36 pm.

      Laughable indeed

      It is laughable that this type of study passes for scientific research and conclusions. It if is your flavor of Kool-Aid, well then drink up.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/11/2012 - 01:42 pm.

    It’s called principle

    “these data are consistent with our claim that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism”

    The authors claim that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism, but what the authors call “low-effort thought” is really the acceptance and belief in certain principles that require very little analysis or deliberation because they’ve been accepted as the truth.

    Principle: 1.A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

    A healthy person’s ideology evolves over time beginning when we’re children. Fulghum’s “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” is a sort of laundry list of liberalism from pacifism to collectivism. But in the decade since kindergarten, these college students have lived in a free society. From participating as consumers, they know instinctively how markets work. How being able to compete is a good thing. How private property is the foundation of economic freedom.

    Conservative principles come naturally and are the “default” for anyone who’s been raised in a free society. I could be stone drunk and with no preparation whtsoever deliver an argument of why a free society will become an equal society faster than an equal society would ever become a free society, for example.

    On the other hand, after kindergarten and a decade’s taste of capitalism, a person’t next exposure to ideology is in the classroom. There students are told to believe things that are not part of their normal world. Competition is bad. Tradition is bad. That evil corporations are responsible for those jeans you’re wearing or the smart phone you just bought. That contrary to the principles of supply and demand that you learned as a consumer, you’re told that government should decide what kind and how much energy should be produced. That everyone on a job should make the same wage regardless of how unequal the work effort is. That people who break the rules are given a pass if they’re a member of a protected class.

    No wonder it requires a lot of deliberation to reconcile what you’ve been told in class with what you know instinctively to be true.

    Instinct: See Principles

  8. Submitted by Don Berryman on 04/11/2012 - 02:19 pm.

    Old news

    “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it”. – John Stuart Mill,

  9. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 04/11/2012 - 02:28 pm.


    This “study” is hilarious. All it does is confirm what leftists already believe about themselves, that they are smarter than everyone else. Well, whatever floats your boat.

  10. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/11/2012 - 05:06 pm.

    Don’t know about the “scientific” validity of the study

    But it is consistent with other features of current Right/Left thinking:

    (1) The Right appeals to the fear of the unfamiliar and the desire for security; the Left argues for a worldview that seeks to expand the embrace of the “other” across dimensions of geography, culture, species and time. In other words, the Right seeks to drive folks down toward the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy and the Left seeks to raise them up into the realms of the self-realizing and other-regarding. It takes more regulation of instinct and intentional reflection to extend toward universality than to take atavistic refuge among one’s clan.

    (2) To the Right, the proper (and only comprehensible) standpoint for civic participation is that of narrow self-interest. To the Left, it is the standpoint of the Kantian “ideal legislator” or Rawlsian “behind the veil” – that public policy should be considered with regard to what is consistent with a just society, not one’s own self-interest. Judging a public policy against the criterion of one’s simple self-interest is more instinctual and much quicker than attempting to think about how a policy will apply to all in their different circumstances, and how that comports with justice.

    (3) The Right rests ever more heavily on ideological catchphrases to which facts and actual outcomes for real people are not relevant (e.g., Mr Tester’s regular purporting that the most free society is the one in which there is no collective constraint on individual prerogative). To the Left, public policy is about weighing a vast complexity of facts to guess at the most just outcome among an infinity of imperfect ones. Being rushed, tired, drunk or otherwise under stress clearly impairs one of these cognitive undertakings more than it does the other.

  11. Submitted by James Murck on 04/11/2012 - 05:45 pm.

    It all depends on which ideology has the upper hand in communicating their message at a particular point in history. When I was young in the 60s and 70s, my parents and grandparents talk endlessly about how government should be there for the little guy, the common man to make sure that he gets a fair portion of the American Dream. From the 30s thru the 70s, the Dems were ascendant. We got the New Deal, the G.I. bill; labor was strong and wages increased, production skyrocketed, quality of life rose dramatically in every imaginable matrix for rich and poor alike.

    From the 70s on thru now the Repubs and their message has been ascendant. Now the kneejerk response is Starve the Beast, government IS the problem, Unions are bad and the like. We got another dramatic increase in production but nearly every other matrix has either remained flat or fallen to near collapse for the little guy while the rich have skyrocketed all the wealth created by that increased production to obscene levels not seen since the gilded age before Teddy Roosevelt. I tell you what – I’m sticking with the old memes I learned in my childhood back in the 60s and 70s because the tides are turning again. The little guys/gals have had enough of the elite Republican class warfare against them and history is about to repeat itself again…

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/11/2012 - 08:35 pm.

    Ideological purity is my single biggest gripe with either party. It’s the crack cocaine of imbeciles. It’s the last refuge for cynical rogues seeking to lead those imbeciles. There has never, ever, been a problem that was solved by greater ideological purity, and there never will be. Any time a failing comes down to not being conservative/liberal/socialist/capitalist enough, then you know the end game is near.

  13. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/12/2012 - 01:50 pm.

    You have to love anyone who quotes John Stuart Mill

    While Mr. Berryman may be my hero for quoting my favorite social thinker of the 19th century, I think Mr. Holtman has presented an excellent and I think unique perspective on political philosophy linked to motivation. Well done. I usually simplify it down to “Anyone who makes you afraid doesn’t have your best interests at heart.”

    The research in and of itself is interesting – although I would wish the numbers of participants to be higher I would say at this point it gives us interesting directional information but not data. But it is far from either laughable or liberal confirming as Mr. Rose (who dismisses all research as potentially biased because he apparently doesn’t understand that there are professional standards) and Ms. Kohls has misread the study there is nothing about smarter, the study was about effort not effort and raw material combined. One suspects that the only legitimate studies that they would agree with are ones whose conclusions they agree with.

    You need to look at the authors definition of conservationism, “personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo”. One would hardly equate that with the conservative/ Republican movement in the US, unless they were upper class conservatives because those look like a lot more like power retention strategies.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/13/2012 - 12:00 pm.

      Speak for yourself

      “Mr. Rose (who dismisses all research as potentially biased because he apparently doesn’t understand that there are professional standards) … ”

      Mr. Rose did not state that he dismisses all research.

      Are there professional standards? Do those standards make all studies accurate? Sue Perry’s column today, “Are religious people happier than atheists?”, would indicate otherwise. Sue’s reports that religious people are not happier than atheists, though most previous studies concluded that religious people are happier than atheists. How could we have been failed by professional standards in research?

      It seems that professional standards can fail us. Do food industry standards completely protect us? Ask a person who has fallen victim to enterobacteriaceae pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, Shigella). I don’t advise eating ground beef pink.

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