The Thinking Liberal?

It seems that the stereotype of the “thinking liberal” may have some truth.  New research (summarized in the BPS Digest) finds that “low-effort” thinking about a given issue is more likely to result in a conservative stance.  Here’s the abstract:

The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. In Study 1, alcohol intoxication was measured among bar patrons; as blood alcohol level increased, so did political conservatism (controlling for sex, education, and political identification). In Study 2, participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than their no-load counterparts. In Study 3, time pressure increased participants’ endorsement of conservative terms. In Study 4, participants considering political terms in a cursory manner endorsed conservative terms more than those asked to cogitate; an indicator of effortful thought (recognition memory) partially mediated the relationship between processing effort and conservatism. Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.

The BPS Digest places the research in a larger context: “The finding that reduced mental effort encourages more conservative beliefs fits with prior research suggesting that attributions of personal responsibility (versus recognizing the influence of situational factors), acceptance of hierarchy and preference for the status quo – all of which may be considered hallmarks of conservative belief – come naturally and automatically to most people, at least in western societies.”


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  1. Clifton Griffin says:

    I think the last sentence is pretty informative.

    I was wondering as I read this whether or not the same would hold true in societies where conservative values are not deeply embedded in the collective consciousness.

    I think it would be a crass assumption to say that this has any bearing on the legitimacy of conservative or liberal thinking.

    Some of the simplest ideas are the truest. And some of the most complicated are false. The ease with which they may be recalled is probably less dependent on the idea and more dependent on how strongly they are implanted.

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    • Erika says:

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    • Rick says:

      Most of us would like to avoid changes that threaten security. Reference Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That doesn’t mean that we can’t rise above beliefs that we inherited and embrace new ones.

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      • And . . . says:

        Not to mention loss aversion (Tversky/Kahneman), or why people fail to select the other curtain/door in the Monty Hall problem, or how magicians (Derren Brown, etc) successfully lead people to choose the appropriate box/envelope by quickly and repeatedly giving them a chance to change their minds, thereby confirming them in their first choices.

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    • James says:

      “Some of the simplest ideas are the truest.”

      This is certainly true in science. Consider the simplicity of the Copernican revolution, Newton’s universal gravitation, the atomic theory of chemistry, evolution…

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    • Erika says:

      To Clifton, I appreciated your original post until the sentence I referenced. I criticized that sentence because I was frustrated by its gross generalization & it ironically lacks “facts to support your assertion”. If speaking of science, perhaps Occam’s razor is appropriate, but the article is discussing political views, which are fundamentally based on our morals, not scientific theories. I agree when you said, “the complexity of an idea lends nothing to its credibility,” but that is not the same as “some of the simplest ideas are the truest.” And if we are going to be precise with our words, how is an idea true or false? Ideas are not facts– they cannot be factually judged, but they could be judged qualitatively. Perhaps if an idea, in the arena of politics, becomes legislation, then its efficacy can be judged, but saying that, for example, “The First Amendment is true” is nonsensical.

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  2. rationalrevolution says:

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    • MeanOnSunday says:

      The reality is rather backward to your argument. Modern existence is less stressful than ever before, and society has become more liberal than ever before.

      Please consider that 100 hundred years ago you worked 7 days a week until you dropped dead, at half the age you can expect to live today. Most of your children were likely to die at a young age. You ate bad food and not enough of it, cities had air that was barely breathable and water that was a reservoir of disease. If you were black you were a persecuted second class citizen, women couldn’t vote and rarely received education, homosexuals were imprisoned.

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      • Clifton Griffin says:

        You expressed this much more skillfully than I could have.

        This goes for biobabbler’s comment on attention spans as well. The more distracted we as a society become, the more liberal it would seem. (Which, I’ll be honest, resonates with my own views of the world.)

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      • rationalrevolution says:

        Depends on how you define “stressful”. It’s certainly true that people live loner in a modern context, but simple longevity doesn’t indicate less stress.

        People in more primitive societies are certainly less mentally stressed. Fewer things to worry about, no deadlines, few long-term objectives, fewer tasks to focus on, etc., etc.

        A better example would be to compare the life of the Amish for example to the life of someone living in New York City.

        To claim that Amish life is “more stress” would require an interesting definition and measure of “stress”.

        Modern life splits people’s attention and generally results in people spending less time in deep thought about any given issue.

        And as for my comments about Republicans and family values, a perfect example is mandatory family leave time.

        Republicans are consistently against mandatory family leave time for new parents and against increasing mandatory vacation time, etc., yet how can anyone argue that allowing parents to spend more time with their children is not pro-family?

        Clearly the “pro-family” position would be to ensure that parents have more time to spend with their children, but that’s not what corporations want, so of course the Republicans come down on the side of the corporations. And as a result we have parents with hardily a moment or a dime to spare stressed out due to job insecurity doing whatever they can to keep food on the table and roof over their kid’s heads, who then end up letting their kids sit in front of TV for hours a day because they can’t afford nor have time for anything else as they try to use what little waking time they have off work to prepare food, clean the house, pay bills, etc., then get up the next day to do it all over again…

        And then they go out and vote Republican, because they complain about how government is taking their freedom away! LOL ***sigh***

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      • Jen says:

        What is your support for “less stressful”? Perhaps you are confusing working hard, especially physically hard, with stress? They’re not really the same thing.

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      • J says:

        The Amish lifestyle isn’t remotely representative of life 100 years ago. Someone living that lifesytle today is not going to be denied state-of-the art medical care if they want it, is not going to starve in the event of crop failure, and has much cleaner water and probably air to deal with. People living the Amish lifestyle are making a lifestyle choice, not struggling to survive. If it was 100 years ago, their life would be pretty stressful, just like everybody elses.

        “In their support of corporations and the wealthy”

        I work for a corporation, and they treat me pretty well. They even gave me six weeks off when my kid was born, without goverment coercion. Our best customers are other corporations and their employees. Your access to the internet comes via a corporation. The medical care you receive and the equipment and drugs you take come from corporations that spent their money developing those things. The food you eat probably comes from a corporation; if it doesn’t, nearly everything you use to cultivate it does. Without the oil industry, life as you know it wouldn’t be possible. Countries with a lot of coporations, especially large ones, have the highest standard of living in the world. The government that serves you is funded pretty much entirely by coporations and their employees. It would seem corporations are pretty beneficial, even for you. Why the hate?

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  3. Eric M. Jones. says:

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    • Matto says:

      BREAKING: Overwhelmingly Liberal Professors Find Evidence That Confirm Liberal Beliefs.

      In other news: -Religious University Finds Evidence That Says Evolution ‘Incorrect’.
      -Orignal Series Star Trek Fan Club Releases Study Showing Kirk to be Best Captain.

      We’re emotional dogs with rational tails, not the other way around.

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    • Des says:

      “That’s why college professors and the highly educated are overwhelmingly liberal.”

      I think you’ve got your cause and effect backwards there. Professors are a self-selected group that preferred academia to the business world. It would make sense that the type of person that would eschew profit in favor of academic advancement would tend toward the liberal rather than conservative side. People don’t “become liberal” by getting more education. Rather, liberals are more likely to choose careers that require higher levels of formal education.

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    • Sam_L says:

      Or, those who are most highly educated have less stressful lives (consider college professors who are compensated at one of the highest hourly rates, have very flexible work hours, more vacation than most Americans) and thus have room to entertain hypothetical realities that need no pragmatic grounding.

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      • Melissa says:

        It’s a myth that college professors are compensated at one of the highest hourly rates, at least if you take into account level of education attained. People with PhDs outside of academe tend to make much more than those in it.

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    • J says:

      “People with PhDs outside of academe tend to make much more than those in it”

      Depends on the field. Unless they work for the government, somebody with a PhD in engineering or a hard science normally makes more than an academic, especially if they retain patent rights*; if somebody with a PhD in Art History doesn’t want to be a waitress or a bartender, they’d better get an academic job.

      *There are exceptions here too. I know one hard science prof at a “public ivy” whose consulting income dwarfs what he makes as a professor. As near as I can tell, teaching is his hobby, not his job.

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  4. Shane L says:

    If* political conservativism tends to be concerned with stability and order rather than equality then perhaps it is natural that people under stress and pressure favour political values that promise security. Speaking very generally I know that lots of people talk about college students being quite left-wing, and then swinging right when they enter the workforce. Could that be related to the move from the secure educational institution to the insecure market? I’m not sure, though.

    *Because I’m never sure where the lines are drawn and “conservative” seems to mean different things in different countries.

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      It really does depend on what you mean by conservative and “secure”.

      College is a fairly unrepresentative experience compared to the rest of your life. For 4 years, you are paying few of your own bills (even if you’re postponing them via student loans). You have the luxury of entertaining hypotheticals and developing a semi-informed cynicism about the world your parent’s grew up in.

      When you enter the work force, suddenly the “injustice” of the “system” fades in comparison of your very real need to work hard and prove yourself in a marketplace that will quickly replace you if you slack. And, as you do apply yourself and find the system is fighting for you as much as against you, the lofty goals of liberal utopianism suddenly seem less important or realistic.

      Real life begets a healthy level of pragmatism.

      As for security: Conservative principles offer you the security of relying on yourself for your success. If you don’t find that comforting, you may be drawn to the security of believing the government will always catch you when you falter. For the conservative, the latter sounds stifling. For the liberal, the former sounds Darwinistic and cruel.

      Two very different perspectives.

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      • Jen says:

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      • Patrick says:

        College would be much more helpful if pragmatism invaded its teachings.

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      • James says:

        “College is a fairly unrepresentative experience compared to the rest of your life. For 4 years, you are paying few of your own bills (even if you’re postponing them via student loans).”

        That may be true for some college students, but not for all. A good many still work their way through.

        As for college professors all being liberals, I think whoever came up with that idea was only acquainted with the liberal arts faculty. Add in the engineering & science faculty, and the ratio changes.

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      • Clifton Griffin says:


        You’re confusing conservative principles with anarchist ones. The vast majority of conservatives, whether Constitutionalist, Libertarian, or card carrying member of the Grand Old Party are in support of taxes as a way of expanding infrastructure and creating future economic opportunities.

        Conservatives don’t believe their abilities offer them complete security, but they do trust the marginal security of trying a little harder than their peers, working a little later, saving a little more per year rather than social solutions.


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  5. biobabbler says:

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      You can’t possibly reduce it this far.

      People do not go into voting booths drunk, distracted, under pressure, or purposefully overloaded.

      Far more important to the question would be: a) cultural background, b) amount and quality of education , c) socioeconomic status, d) their peers. Barely anyone I know has mature, reasoned political thoughts. This goes for my liberal and conservative friends.

      This study is interesting in an anecdotal sense, but I think any other application is tenuous at best without much more research.

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  6. Jared says:

    I don’t buy this for two seconds. “Acceptance of heirarchy”? Thats a liberal thought! They are the ones that want big government! And “Preference for the status quo?” that can be attributed to any political thought anywhere in the world. I call bull crap on the methodology. If I were running the study it would have different outcomes (i.e. I believe this study was biased)

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    • rationalrevolution says:

      ““Acceptance of heirarchy”? Thats a liberal thought! They are the ones that want big government!”

      Umm… Stop watching FOX news???

      Trying to break down the usages of the word liberal is probably too much to deal with here, but let’s just suffice it to say that pretty much EVERY left wing movement is anti-hierarchy, that’s pretty much a defining characteristic of what makes a position “Leftist”.

      Now it is true that many so-called Leftist movements have ended up with overbearing hierarchies as a result, but that’s actually more a product of the fact that they came to power via military coups than anything else.

      The terms “Left” and “Right” originate from the French parliament, where the aristocracy sat on the right side of parliament and the members of the House of Commons sat on the left.

      Besides, liberals are not in favor of “big government” (despite what Rush Limbaugh tells you), they are in favor of using whatever tools are available to counteract the authority of traditional hierarchies.

      Given that traditional hierarchies have a lot of inherent social and economic power, it requires something of equal or greater power to combat them, and that tool is quite often “government”.

      Government is merely a tool, a means to an end. No real liberal is an advocate of government power or authority for the sake of it, they merely seek to democratically use government power and authority when there is no other peaceful means to achieve the objective of combating unjust entrenched hierarchies and systems of power.

      So liberals merely see government (in the theoretical sense) as an instrument of democratic power to be used to combat “privately” manufactured injustices.

      Today, however, most liberals now realize that, unfortunately, our actual government (not government in theory) is not a tool of democratically allocated power that is used for good, but rather our government is actually now a tool of the hierarchies is injustice.

      So, sensible liberals today recognize that the actual power wielded by government in America, at all levels, is now mostly used against the interests of the democratic majority and against liberal ideals, and that our government has become a tool of the powerful to maintain and enforce hierarchies. So sensible liberals today are certainly not in favor of “big government” because government power serves illiberal interests.

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      • Sonny Blount says:

        Conservatives knew that government works against the people 300 years ago, it’s about time Liberals figured this out.

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      • tmeier says:

        True as far as it goes. On both sides of the liberal/conservative divide there are those who are motivated by self-interest rather than ideas, these are convenient targets for criticism. I find nothing more common than for each side to believe most of the people opposed to their views are the self-interested where those who share their ideas are mostly enlightened. Conservatives for example see liberals as envious, licentious, unprincipled and deluded by simple-minded idealism, liberals see conservatives as greedy, stupid, repressed and chauvinistic if not racist.

        If you want to understand the situation you have to give up this sort of prejudice.

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    • Brenna says:

      I think it’s clear whoever wrote this was liberal. Not only is it completely biased, but the logic is nowhere to be found and it’s completely unreliable. …basically this article is the only thing I see that displays “low-effort” thinking–not a particular political group. Way to divide the line between parties even further.

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      • Jen says:

        Hmm. I’d say that low-effort thinking would be not researching the methodology better and having substantive critiques of the studies, rather than just stating that because you don’t agree with it, it’s “biased” and “unreliable.” While there may in fact be some ways to prove that, you have only given support to the thesis with your posting.

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  7. Jack says:

    Interesting to read and compare with the study written about in the New York Times that conservative thought was directly related to cleanliness…

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  8. Jason says:

    Really, Freakonomics??

    This post is the worst I’ve ever seen on your blog. This ridiculous study is just the result of more extremely liberal researcher trying to create the holy grail that is a study that “proves” the conservatives views are automatically invalid.

    The entire study is predicated on the assumption that conservative ideas do not require thought. The mere fact that there actually exist conservative think-tanks should be enough to disprove their initial hypothesis. The alternate fact that there actually are liberal ideas that require very little thought (i.e. the government should provide everyone healthcare) also disproves it.

    And just to point out some anecdotal evidence. Its very common for people who drink to have lower inhibitions and engage in behavior that is very “liberal”. How can they do this when drinking makes their judgement more conservative? So at least in the anecdotal sense there is a clear counter example to their study.

    The takeaway is that this study is just partisan drivel.

    This is an extremely poor posting for this blog.

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    • Malice in Wonderland says:

      The study in no way suggests that developing conservative ideas requires no thought. Not sure where you got that. What it appears to show is that when people have less time to think things through, they are likely to agree with simplistic positions rather than complex ones. In the USA of today, a lot of the knee-jerk “conservative” values fit this description. If you go to Russia, you’ll notice that there, it’s the knee-jerk communist ideas that make people feel most comfortable (that’s why they vote for a Stalin-lite piece of shit like Putin, and reminisce fondly about the days when the Soviet jackboot was firmly placed on their necks). Thinking Russians, much like thinking Americans, reject ideas that, while simple, are not actually in their benefit (I’m consistently amazed by my father, who as a firmly middle class guy who would have to work 6 or 7 years to earn a million dollars, gets all up in arms about taxing income over $1 million at a higher rate. Why? He’s certainly not protecting his own interests.)

      Anyway, as a self-professed “conservative” Canadian, I can only laugh at what passes for “conservative” thought in America. Our MOST Conservative party sits somewhere to the LEFT of Obama, who many conservative Americans seem to consider to be the second coming of Che Guevara (you guys are seriously f-ed up you know?). Conservatives in America went off the deep end many years ago. I used to think that if I lived in America, I’d vote Republican, but more and more, I know that could never be possible. Sadly, the last truly great Republican president was Eisenhower (come to think of it, probably the best US president in the past half century). Reagan I’ll always respect and appreciate because he understood that the only way to deal with the Soviets was to stare them down and watch them fail. Nixon had some good points (and also some bad). But the Bush crowd failed America on many levels and the new batch of candidates would be a great joke if not for the sad fact that they are actually vying to lead what I consider to be the greatest nation on earth. Here’s hoping Obama wins a second term.

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      • James says:

        “…my father… gets all up in arms about taxing income over $1 million at a higher rate. Why? He’s certainly not protecting his own interests.”

        Perhaps because he has an interest in abstract justice, or a longer-term view of what his interests actually are? As for instance, I happen to be neither gay nor female: how then is it in my interests to support rights for women and gays? But I do.

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