Defaulting to Conservatism
Kayt is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the Author's Guild and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). She has recently returned to the United States after living abroad for six years and has just published her first book, DIRTY MINDS: HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS, an exploration of the neurobiology of love (Free Press, 2012).
Kayt Sukel's writing credits include personal essays in the Washington Post, American Baby, the Bark, USAToday, Literary Mama and the Christian Science Monitor as well as articles on a variety of subjects for the Atlantic Monthly, Parenting, Cerebrum, BrainWork and American Baby magazines. She blogs regularly about traveling on the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winning travel blog, Travel Savvy Mom; and science, love and life at the Houston Chronicle's Hearts and Minds blog.
You can often find her oversharing on Twitter as @kaytsukel.
The brain is a complex and demanding machine. Given the amount of resources required to run the average brain, it’s no surprise that it takes a few shortcuts when it can. After all, it’s the ultimate multi-tasker—and needs to distribute its energy in a smart and efficient fashion. And now, a recent study published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that one of those energy-saving shortcuts may have us defaulting to more conservative ideology when we don’t have the resources to think through a situation. A finding that got the folks in my circle, conservative and liberal alike, talking.
Scot Eidelman, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas, and colleagues asked study participants about their political opinions in two unique situations: in a bar and in the laboratory. Bar patrons, happily downing their favorite adult beverages, were asked to identify themselves as a liberal or conservative, give their opinions about a variety of social issues and then blow into a breathalyzer. The group found that higher blood alcohol levels were associated with conservative positions—despite the person’s professed political leanings.
In the lab, the group once again asked study participants about social issues—but here they manipulated the amount of time individuals had to answer as well as whether or not they were distracted during their response. When participants were distracted or push to answer quickly, they tended to endorse more conservative ideas including “authority, tradition and private property.” The researchers concluded that low-effort thought, made quicker and less complicated by alcohol or laboratory manipulations, defaults to more conservative ideology.
I asked Eidelman if he was surprised by the results. He told me that he wasn’t—but added a caveat, “I was a bit surprised at how easy it was to demonstrate our effect. Across different ways of measuring or inducing low-effort thought including alcohol and time pressure, community samples and college students, blue states and red states, and measures of political attitudes, the results clearly converged in support of our predictions.”
As a more liberal thinker, this floors me. It’s hard to imagine a situation, even taxed by martinis, that I’d back more conservative ideas. And I can't help but wonder whether there is a difference between a general social policy and something that affects you and your family personally.
So what might be the benefit of defaulting to a conservative mindset when the situation doesn’t allow you to put a lot of effort into your responses?
“It’s likely that playing it safe, sticking with what has worked well enough in the past, recognizing that some are above you in the pecking order, and others below, conferred important advantages in our evolutionary past, and still does today.”
But he does admit that breaking from the status quo can also be a boon. “Of course, it’s also true that breaking out of [conservative] molds has done plenty to promote desirable ends. Sometimes our first, quick response may be correct or desirable, sometimes not.”
Eidelman argues that basic, non-ideological ways of thinking may have ideological consequences—that our minds may have a modest ideological tilt to the right, such that political conservatism has a psychological advantage when our brains are occupied with other things. He says it’s an important thing to be aware of. With the election almost upon us, I can’t help but agree.
What do you think? Does your brain have a conservative default?
Credit: Jeffrey Collingwood/Shutterstock.com
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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