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. Phil says:

    This doesn’t suprise me at all but then again, I am a liberal. It would make sense to me if the same applied to acceptance of religious belief. Lot’s of ‘low effort’ thinking going on there (yes I’m an atheist too).

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 13 Thumb down 17
    • Clifton Griffin says:

      This is a great example of at least two cognitive biases:
      Belief bias
      Confirmation bias

      It’s not that surprising that you don’t find data that supports your pre-existing beliefs surprising or in need of further proof. :)

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3
  2. Peter Lange says:

    It would seem to me that the problem with this, both the study and the reaction of most people on the board here to this study, is in the interpretation of “conservative” and “liberal” within the context of today’s political definitions of those terms.

    The qualities that come it claims come most naturally to most people in western society can belong to either policitcal leaning depending on the context.

    For example: Modern day republicans dislike the Heirarchy when it is personified in the form of the government, but support it when it is personified in the form of market forces and market leaders. Modern day liberals want to disrupt the status quo when it comes to issues such as health care, but preserve it when it comes to issues such as civil liberties.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2
  3. AFG says:

    I am a liberal and I don’t think this study, if assumed to be true, would be evidence of the superiority of my ideology.

    1. Commentators, assume this study is true and conservatives are emotional dolts. Where does that get you> Sure you get your moment of smug superiority, but you should try to convince people of the rightness of your cause, which is certainly not helped by chest thumping.

    2. We know a lot about how the bounded nature of human rationality leads us to the wrong answer in many situations when we “think” (See, Thinking Fast and Slow). The Above Average Effect, Confirmation bias and Group think (among others) often cause us to create more damage when, in our hubris, we attempt to understand and order an inherently chaotic system. I, for one, am the type of liberal who would rather take Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge as my Bible over Marx’s capital any day. And I am not sure which one this type of thinking leads to.

    3. On a similar note, this will only be insulting to the Gingrich/neo-conservative wing of Republicans who think fighting on the battlefield of ideas is the best way to contest liberalism. A traditional Burkean conservative would respond, “…And?”

    4. I wonder if the results would still be significant if you control for education. No really. Another way to interpret this study is that Americans are naturally conservative and they censor their true thoughts a bit (to fit in?) when they have time to think it through.

    If conservatism is the “base position” of human nature, then the question is not “where does a little thinking lead you” but “where does a lot of thinking get you.” The average person has not put serious thought into their ideology and are much more tribal, responding to whatever framing is most recent. If this effect was still significant for both educated liberals and educated conservatives, then I would be much more convinced of the link.


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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      Excellent points. I appreciate your candor and critical analysis.

      I think this also could reflect an availability bias. We fall back on the ideas that are most convenient to recall.

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  4. chad says:

    The definitions in the study are pointless. How many liberal issues could be considered the most reductive thinking possible?

    1. Guns kill people, so if we ban them crime will fall.
    2. Some people don’t make a lot of money, so instituting a wage floor will make them better off.
    3. Poor people cannot afford mortgages, so have the government insure them against default to lower rates and increase home ownership.
    4. Our [steel] industry cannot compete with other countries, so institute a tariff.
    5. Throw (other people’s) money are problem X and it will be improved.

    Look at all the shade of meaning that is lost on this level–this is absolute knee-jerk reasoning. One can easily look at liberal views as being almost childishly simplistic when they are dumbed down, as in this study for ‘conservative ideology’. These kinds of studies are published all the time these days, and they are so rarely enlightening.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 6
    • Clifton Griffin says:

      Excellent point.

      I was thinking this yesterday. Thomas Sowell calls this the divide between stage one and stage two thinking.

      Politicians usually operate in the domain of stage one thinking, because most people are not well equipped to identify the fallacy. So, when a politician proposes a ban on high rises, it’s easy for the community to offer their support.

      Stage two thinking requires you analyze the unintended consequences of such a ban: such as an artificial housing shortage leading to triple rent.

      The same goes with rent controls, taxation, open spaces initiatives, etc.

      But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my own side’s problems. Conservatives have their own version of crass, reductive thinking. The War on Drugs and “better to fight them over here than on our own soil” come to mind.

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    • SBJ810 says:

      Your examples in a logic class would be known as red herrings. You are not presenting the arguments of a leftist/progressive, only your own distorted rendering of those arguments.

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  5. Jack says:

    I wonder what the results would have been if that first sentence read: “The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political *liberalism*.”

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  6. rick says:

    Why do the shallowest comments in general but not always get the most “likes” or “dislikes”?

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  7. Jen says:

    For other high effort folks, the full article is available free if you click the “New research” link in the article — it’s kind of hidden on the side but there is a free pdf.

    It makes it easier to argue how badly biased they were (or weren’t) if you actually read what they did.

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      True. And many of us probably did, but I think the controversy here is that the study cannot establish *why* people are more conservative in those conditions. Only that they were.

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  8. Alternativist says:

    OK, how about the “social pressure” hypothesis: many (most?) people are inherently conservative but are pressured into claiming liberal beliefs in public. As their blood alcohol level increases, their inhibitions loosen and they say what they REALLY think.

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