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.”

Clifton Griffin

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.


"Some of the simplest ideas are the truest. And some of the most complicated are false." This is a ridiculous statement.

Clifton Griffin

Thank you for providing facts to support your assertion.

I stand by what I said. The complexity of an idea lends nothing to its credibility.


And now consider the increasing strain put on society over the past 50 years due to work, media and technology...

Basically what this is saying is that the more stressful life becomes the more people will tend toward conservative thought.

In other words, the more that conservative policies contribute to making life hectic and stressful, the more conservative the population will become, which just creates a feedback loop.

This is basically what I have thought for years now. In reality the Republican party is the leading cause of many of the very ills that conservatives themselves rail against. In their support of corporations and the wealthy, the Republican party has been the primary contributor to the degradation of "family values" and the like, but in response to corporate America's assault on society, "conservative voters" keep voting for Republicans, who just strengthen the strangle hold that corporations have on American life, which is the actual root cause of what many "conservative voters" are upset with.



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.

Clifton Griffin

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.)

Eric M. Jones.

That's why college professors and the highly educated are overwhelmingly liberal.

No surprise there. Reality has a liberal slant.


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.

Shane L

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.

Clifton Griffin

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.



"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."

Or, rather, conservative principles offer you the ILLUSION OF the security of relying on yourself for your success -- and the ability to ignore all the ways in which you alone did not create your success.

Unless of course you were entirely privately educated by entirely privately educated teachers and professors and don't use any of our infrastructure (roads, the electric grid, sewers) and maintain your own personal military and police force to maintain your success.


So, as short attention spans become more pervasive, so might conservative points of view?

Clifton Griffin

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.


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)


"“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.


Sonny Blount

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


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


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.


Malice in Wonderland

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.



" 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.


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).

Clifton Griffin

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. :)

Peter Lange

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.


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.



Clifton Griffin

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.


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.


Clifton Griffin

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.


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*."


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


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.

Clifton Griffin

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.


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.


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.

John J.

Then how can you explain Occupy Wall Street?


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.

Clifton Griffin

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.



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.



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.