Think less and become more conservative

The less time or mental effort a person puts into thinking about an issue, the more likely they are to espouse a politically conservative perspective. That’s according to a new study by Scott Eidelman and his team, who stress that their point is “not that conservatives rely on low effort thought” but that “low effort thinking promotes political conservatism”.

Across four studies, the researchers examined the effects on political attitudes of four different ways of reducing mental effort. This included: surveying drinkers at varying degrees of intoxication at a local bar; allocating some participants to a dual-task condition where they had to keep track of auditory tones at the same time as registering their political attitudes; allocating some participants to a time-pressured situation, in which they had to rate their agreement with different political statements at fast as possible; and finally, giving some participants the simple instruction to respond to political statements without thinking too hard.

The results were consistent across the studies – being more drunk, being distracted by a secondary task, answering under time pressure and answering without thinking, all led participants to agree more strongly with politically conservative beliefs, such as “A first consideration of any society is the protection of property rights” and “Production and trade should be free of government interference.” Agreement with liberal beliefs were either reduced or unaffected by the measures. The researchers checked and the effects they observed were not due to differences in the complexity of the statements used to measure political conservatism and liberalism, nor were they due to changes in mood or frustration associated with the interventions.

The finding that reduced mental effort encourages more conservative beliefs fits with prior research suggesting that attributions of personal responsibility (versus recognising 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.

“Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural,” the researchers concluded. “Motivational factors are crucial determinants of ideology, aiding or correcting initial responses depending on one’s goals, beliefs, and values. Our perspective suggests that these initial and uncorrected responses lean conservative.”
Eidelman, S., Crandall, C., Goodman, J., and Blanchar, J. (2012). Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167212439213

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

11 thoughts on “Think less and become more conservative”

  1. The way you have adopted American political terminology for this post, with “conservative” and “liberal” as opposites, gives a strange result. The two example statements you quote (“A first consideration of any society is the protection of property rights” and “Production and trade should be free of government interference”) to me are pretty fundamental tenets of liberalism.

    I understand that this is probably the vocabulary used in the original paper – but in a publication marked as being “British”, these terms could well cause confusion.

  2. it doesn't seem very surprising that when less thought is put into it people more readily default to the 'status quo' answer…

  3. Yea, I always suspected Michael Oakeshott, David Hume and Adam Smith were a bit thick.

  4. Wow, this means that all my journalist colleagues in the media are conservatives – at night. And many of them even at daylight.

  5. What impact do you think culture has on this study? The individuals surveyed were likely either from Fayettville, AR or Lawrence, KS. These are widely considered two “conservative” areas of our country. I would be curious to see these studies replicated in NYC, or Boston, etc.

    I would also like to see replications of this study in other countries. That would be interesting as well.

  6. “The two example statements you quote (“A first consideration of any society is the protection of property rights” and “Production and trade should be free of government interference”) to me are pretty fundamental tenets of liberalism.” – Really? These things are fundamental to British Liberalism?

  7. What he means is, for some reason in the U.S. we have switched what these terms mean from the classic usage, and what the UK and other parts of the world still use. Liberalism in that context means what you and I would refer to as right wing / conservative. This is what he means that the terms may cause confusion in other countries. Though I'm not sure what he meant that it was marked as being British, as SPSP is in the U.S.

  8. Conservatives don't think, they rationalize. Which in some ways takes a lot more steps than logic does.

  9. Actually those are long standing principles of American conservatism. I am a self-described liberal (“bleeding heart”) yet I have always agreed with those ideas. Well maybe not protection of property rights as a first consideration. But even considering confirmation bias, I believe this report makes a good point.

  10. That may well be the case, but their first instinctive answer requires little to no thought. The rationalisation only comes afterwards when they're challenged. Also, just because they can rationalise something, doesn't mean that the rationalisation isn't full of logical fallacies.

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