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. James says:

    I really can’t see how “preference for the status quo” can possibly be considered a hallmark of conservative belief in the context of contemporary western society. There are surely many examples where conservatives want drastic changes to the status quo, for instance separation of church & state, sexual mores, and more.

    Further, the status quo they challenge often isn’t liberal (unless one simplistically defines liberal as anything conservatives are against). It can be libertarian, as with sexual mores & birth control, or science-based realism, as with evolution or AGW.

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  2. John J. says:

    Then how can you explain Occupy Wall Street?

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  3. tmeier says:

    They defined conservative as, “an emphasis
    on personal responsibility (which they define as blame), acceptance of hierarchy (which they define as acceptance of varying social status of individuals), and a
    preference for the status quo (which they define as the person’s perception of normalcy)”, and liberal apparently as not those things. The result is anything but surprising, this is what people do when they are temporarily stressed. When the situation is confusing or alarming we fall back on our instincts what does this have to do with political philosophy? The fault here is to assign the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ to these ideals.

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      That’s a good point.

      Acceptance of hierarchy is a strange test for conservatism. Conservatives believe that anyone who works hard in a free market can succeed. Thus, they harbor no ill will towards the wealthy because they do not blame the wealthy for their own economic situation. Conservatives recognize that a free market is not a zero sum game.

      If anything, I would say conservatism should lead you to be skeptical of hierarchy, whether political or economic. All men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

      I agree with others that the terms Conservative and Liberal are obnoxiously hard to define. What one man calls conservative, another man calls tyrannical or backwards. That’s why I primarily define myself as a Capitalist with strong libertarian sympathies.

      And, for example, I consider being pro-life a moral stance, not a political one though they may overlap and the position may find broader support among those who define themselves as conservative.

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      • tmeier says:

        There is a fundamental difference in world view here, though the authors don’t seem to recognize it. Many who call themselves ‘liberals’ have a strictly materialist world-view, that is they view everything as determined by a necessary chain of causation. In this view no one deserves any fortune, good or bad any more than you can deserve to win a spin of the roulette wheel. If you are a criminal or a pauper you are the result of circumstances, likewise if you are rich or successful. ‘You’ are like a billiard ball on the cosmic pool table, the very idea of ‘you’ has little meaning.
        So saying conservatives believe in blaming people for their vices and allowing them the rewards of their virtues is really just saying conservatives believe that man is more than an elaborate chemical reaction, that he is an active agent with free will. The rest follows.
        What the authors of this report are confounding is the natural, instinctive tendency for people to fall into certian behaviors under stress, submit to leaders, make snap decisions with the considered positions of a political philosophy. I think history is pretty clear, liberals can form a mob just as easy as conservatives.

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  4. tmeier says:

    I think too there is a lack of understanding of what constitutes conservatism on the part not only of the people who made this study but of those whose work they based it on. Primarily this is one of confounding cause and effect. Saying conservatives like social hierarchy (defined as status) is like saying liberals like abortions, in both cases the value is on the thing, individual economic liberty, reproductive liberty which has this result. The result is not seen by the adherent as a good thing but a necessary one.
    I think perhaps the people who made this study just don’t understand the principles they are trying to examine well enough, otherwise they would not make such elementary errors.

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  5. Doug says:

    This whole concept is ridiculous. If it was true, Republicans would win every election by a landslide beacause the majority of the electorate are “low-level” thinkers.

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    • JimFive says:

      Your mistake is in thinking that Republicans are significantly more conservative than Democrats.

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      • Clifton Griffin says:

        More than that, it assumes that most people vote based on identifiable political stances, rather than populism or “I had a job now I don’t”.

        Hence, the constant tidal shifts in the House of Representatives. Mostly the same voters are either switching political philosophy every 2 years, or voting based on something else entirely.

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  6. John B. says:

    A few years ago, I worked on an experimental, “deliberative polling” project by Mac-Neil Lehrer Productions. The way it worked: we invited residents of several cities to participate in a survey on international affairs, then sit through a series of lectures and presentations by experts from across the political spectrum, then submit to another survey on the same questions they’d been asked before (we paid and fed them for their participation). End result: in every city but one, participants moved measurably to the left from the start of the day to the end. The exception: Baton Rouge LA.

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    • tmeier says:

      I don’t see how that can have any sort of value. How can you possibly assert the experts were equivalent? That the fellows you had giving one side were as well informed, appealing and persuasive as the other. Better to have had them read the best writings on the subject and have panels of people from the opposing views decide which were the best. Then it might mean something.

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  7. Michael says:

    It is possible to interpret this result in completely different way: Considerable number of Americans pretend they are liberal, out of political correctness, but actually not liberal at all…

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  8. Josh says:

    You are over-thinking it.

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