Studies Reveal that Conservatism is Promoted When People Rely on ‘Low-Effort’ Thinking

Good news for conservatives as a compilation of four recent social psychology studies demonstrate that rather than necessarily being pathological, political conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking.

In the four studies conducted by Scott Eidelman, Christian S. Crandall, Jeffrey A. Goodman, and John C. Blanchar published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, they concluded, “(P)olitical conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking. When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient; these conditions promote conservative ideology… low-effort thought might promote political conservatism because its concepts are easier to process, and processing fluency increases attitude endorsement.”

Ever wonder why conservatives can’t seem to understand that people are not always to blame for the circumstances they find themselves in? While personal responsibility sounds like it makes perfect sense initially, when you walk people through the various life circumstances that can render people temporarily dependent upon government help, it becomes clear that things are not so simple. These studies demonstrate the impact of correctional/effortful explanations on political ideology, “This analysis also suggests that some forms of political ideology may result from intentional and effortful correction. For example, Wänke and Wyer (1996) found that liberals scored higher than conservatives on the Attributional Complexity Scale (Fletcher, Danilovics, Fernandez, Peterson, & Reeder, 1986), an indicator that the former generate more complex and detailed (if not more effortful) explanations for the behavior of others.”

We think that compassion and empathy are a fundamental part of liberal values, and we note at times that it takes being in that specific situation for conservatives to grasp why, for example, liberals support universal healthcare for all. There are many studies that address that take on things, but this study is specifically addressing whether or not having low-effort thinking will produce conservative thinking initially, and they showed that it does.

That would fall under blaming the person versus the situation. In some instances, it takes higher level effort thinking (correctional thinking) to consider the situational explanation. An example is considering why someone might be on government assistance. Conservative thinking will blame the person, liberal thinking will correct that initial impulse with a situation-based explanation. “Skitka and her colleagues (Skitka et al., 2002; Study 4) analyzed interviews conducted for the 1987 National Election Studies and found that liberals were more than twice as likely as conservatives to correct an initial “person” attribution with a “situation” explanation in response to a question about government assistance. These correlational findings suggest that some instances of ideology may result from correction processes, overriding and adjusting initial conservative responses. Our experimental studies provide evidence of causal direction.”

Whether that low-effort thinking comes from being busy, overwhelmed, or inebriated, the study shows that under conditions of what we could call cognitive impairment or limited time resulting in low-effort thinking, people are more conservative politically.

As for those centrists (or, come election time, undecided voters), your suspicions appear to be correct. “People with strong political views—left or right—show more cognitive ability than broadly defined centrists.” (Kemmelmeier, 2008)

These studies offer a contrast or different way of looking at previous studies, which have suggested that conservative thought is pathological, fear-based, and a result of relying upon low-effort thought. As they point out, “We argue that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism, not that conservatives rely on low-effort thought.”

Thus, they conclude, “Four studies support our assertion that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism… Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural.” (That’s natural as opposed to pathological, not natural as in right or correct.)

This, they think, explains perhaps conservative bias in American politics, “The psychological foundation from which ideology is derived may not be neutral. Without the means or motive to override an initial impulse that promotes conservative ideology, the political scales may be tipped toward the right of center and may provide a contributing explanation for what has been described as a conservative bias in American politics (e.g., Frank, 2004; Jost, 2006).”

I would argue that Americans are not conservative in actual beliefs (based in part on polls that show that Americans support socialism in action but revile the word), but rather as a result of deliberate linguistic framing, but that is another study for another day. This study focused on specifically on cognitive processes.

It would be easy to be snarky about studies like this, but in truth these studies are a general step up regarding the possible psychological/cognitive reasons for conservative thought. Prevailing thought based on many previous studies was that there is a psychological pathology inherent conservative thinking. But in these studies we are offered a more practical way to approach the divide, if rather tedious. We might try starting off our next “discussion” with a conservative with something along the lines of “Yes, that makes sense initially but it doesn’t account for x, y and z.”

Then again, if they’re drunk on tea, you probably won’t get far past the primitive thought process and it’s probably best to seek higher ground for ideological debate.

Study methods: “We tested these ideas in four studies. Study 1 was conducted in vivo at a local bar, with alcohol intoxication serving as a hindrance to effortful thinking; political attitudes of bar patrons were correlated with a measure of their blood alcohol content (BAC). In Study 2, we measured participants’ political attitudes under normal working conditions or cognitive load. In Study 3, we manipulated time pressure and measured the endorsement of terms related to liberal and conservative beliefs. We expected alcohol, load, and time pressure to interfere with effortful information processing, leaving participants to lean more heavily on thinking that was easy and efficient. In Study 4, we manipulated effortful processing directly by asking participants to consider political terms in a deliberate or cursory manner. In all studies, we expected low-effort thought to promote conservative ideology.”

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