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Defaulting to Conservatism

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

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