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.


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.



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.



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.



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).

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.