To begin with, a warning: This article falls into the domain of pop psychology. Read it at your peril:-).
A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that low-effort thinking leads to a preference for conservative positions. The authors are careful to state that they are not claiming the converse (that conservative positions imply low-effort thinking), and the study is interesting in that it does include four different experiments to look at the effect of different factors (blood alcohol content, cognitive load, time pressure and epistemic motivation). While the results confirm my personal bias that “low-information” individuals tend to be more conservative, and even that a larger fraction of conservatives at the same education level tend to be “low information” thinkers, I tend to look skeptically at studies of this kind because they always occur in unnatural settings. Now, one of the experiments in this study actually took place at a local bar (!), but even there, the introduction of the experimental protocol, in my opinion, reduces the “naturalness” of the situation drastically. As a proponent of the developmental embodied cognition viewpoint, I think that, to truly understand any aspect of cognitive or social psychology, one must study the human animal in its “natural habitat”. A laboratory where you sit facing a computer with bells ringing and cues flashing is not such a setting. Nor is a bar where you’re forced to offer opinions by a “scientist guy” (or gal) with the promise of a blood test to follow:-). Of course, I understand the need to control for interfering factors and laboratory studies do produce very valuable information, but they should not be seen as dispositive. Just as we have biology in the lab and biology in the field, we need to have a more robust “field studies” approach to studying issues such as the one addressed in this paper. One might say that this is exactly what field surveys and polls do, but those are snapshots and miss the crucial process component. To study thought, we have to catch people “in the act” in natural settings – perhaps an opportunity for a collaborative project with the FBI or the NSA:-).
Getting back to the study at hand, I think it raises many other interesting issues. The authors interpret their results as suggesting that conservative positions may be the “default mode” of thinking – at least in American culture. One may ask, however, whether “conservative” is defined by what the default mode generates. This, in turn, would be the product of all the developmental and cognitive learning that individuals go through in their life, which can be expected to reflect broad societal biases. Thus, the results of the study could simply mean that low-effort (superficial) thinking usually leads to the expression of more conventional societal norms (which define “conservative”) whereas more effortful (deeper) thinking reveals individual variation (which is seen as liberal).
Or, more interestingly, one can think in terms of developmental learning. The ideas most ingrained in our minds are those we learn early in life – typically under the influence of older people (parents, teachers, etc.) with more “old-fashioned” (i.e., conservative) ideas, and comprising mainly traditional opinions (e.g., religious beliefs, social taboos, etc.). The more complex – often more nuanced and “liberal” – opinions that we build on top of this scaffolding are acquired later in life through much more tedious processes (e.g., reading, effortful thinking, etc.) It is not surprising, then, that under conditions where thinking effort is too costly (time stress, cognitive impairment, cognitive load, etc.), our “automatic” default system recovers instinctive, simple ideas that are more conservative or traditional. Indeed, chaining this backward through the generations, one can think of conservative ideas as the “core” opinions – similar to conserved core processes in evolution – of a society, its traditions or religion, so to speak. And (since this is a blog:-), one can speculate even further by relating it to animal behavior in general. Arguably, animals are always “conservative” in the sense that they cannot afford the luxury of complexity in the battle for survival, and it may be (as many have suggested) that instinctive responses in the human animal too correspond to conservative positions because these are the most deeply ingrained ones – perhaps even genetically, in some cases. They also tend to be more correlated with the most survival-critical emotions and behaviors: Fear, anxiety, aggression and avoidance.
Finally, I think one could distinguish usefully between “thoughtless conservatism”, i.e., the conservative responses generated through low thinking effort, and “thoughtful conservatism”, representing very complex, deeply thought out (though still misguided:-) ideas such as supply-side economics or laissez-faire markets. Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman and Samuel Huntington were clearly not engaging in “low effort thinking” in developing their ideas, though some would say (and do) that conservative scholarship is all an exercise in apologetics, intended to provide a veneer of complexity over a primitive value system. The same critique is leveled at religion by atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris – not without justification
Returning to the article in question, I think that, in addition to methodological issues, the authors view that low-effort thinking produces “conservative” opinions is too simplistic. It would be more interesting to study if low-effort thinking produces opinions that are more conventional/traditional, socially acceptable, religiously orthodox, acquired early in life, consistent with popular culture, consistent with media biases, etc. Along similar lines, there were stories some months ago that Fox News watchers are the least well-informed of any group that was studied (even worse than those who watch no news!). But one should ask if they are less informed because they watch Fox News, or if they watch Fox News because it reinforces their instinctive (i.e., low information load) biases.
An interesting counterpoint to this whole discussion is provided by the widespread conservative belief that their worldview is, in fact, more grounded in rational thought, in contrast to the more “touchy-feely” underpinnings of the liberal mindset. In a sense, this viewpoint is justified. It all depends on what one means by “rational thought” and how it relates to issues such as social justice, collective good, peaceful resolution of conflict, etc. The conservative idea of “rational” often boils down to social Darwinism and a hard-headed insistence on individual responsibility regardless of context. To me, that is actually much closer to the law of the jungle than what most people consider to be rational after ten thousand years of human civilization. Also, the human mind is capable of infinite self-deception (indeed, is based on it – more about that another time:-) – and neither conservatives nor liberals are immune from this when it comes to justifying their own biases.
The article itself is available free at the link given in the first paragraph and here. To their credit, the authors have a nice discussion of issues such as I raised above towards the end of the paper.