Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

Count to 10. Easy, right? Almost automatic.

Now, count to 10 again—but in alphabetical order. That’s different.

Now mentally trace a route you often drive or walk—to your job or the grocery store or school. Again, simple.

Now, imagine that your normal path and even the next most obvious route to the same place are blocked. What’s your third- or fourth-choice route?

That little exercise illustrates the difference between what psychologists call “low-effort,” or “automatic,” thinking and “controlled” thinking. Most researchers believe we manage most of our days with automatic thinking, which frees our brains to focus on more complex, unfamiliar or difficult tasks. That’s how I can make a tuna sandwich or pump gas or drive to work while I think about details for my daughter’s wedding or how to revise a class schedule or deal with the insurance company.

That’s the kind of difference Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues discuss in a recent research journal article. The title might explain why it’s generated a lot of friction.

Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” published online in March in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, states a simple thesis, summarized in a news release: “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response. This low-effort thinking seems to favor political conservatism, suggesting that it may be our default ideology.” (The paper identified “political conservatism” with three common traits: “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”)

To be clear, the researchers added, “We are not saying that conservatives think lightly.”

Or that they’re stupid. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of several conservative bloggers.

Study: Conservatism ‘linked to low brainpower’” according to the aggrieved “Study ‘Proves’ Conservatism Linked To Stupidity” The Ulsterman Report sarcastically proclaimed. The Conservative Review harrumphed: Conservatism Comes From “Low Brainpower?” Not So Fast, Eggheads At University Of Arkansas. And you have to love the headline from the Washington Examiner: “Study: Dumb drunk people are more conservative.”

During a phone conversation on Friday I asked Eidelman if any of these headlines were accurate interpretations. In a word: “No.”

Scott Eidelman, Ph.D.

While he’s happy people are talking about the research, Eidelman confessed he was “a little disappointed” in how the study has splashed onto the blogosphere.

He compared the reaction to a game of telephone: When social scientists use a term like “low-effort thinking,” they’re using specific jargon to describe the normal, automatic thinking we all do—counting to 10, driving to work—in contrast to the “second-phase” thinking we do when we have time to ponder a subject.

But apparently some knee-jerk commentators saw “low effort” and “translated” it to mean “no-effort” or “lazy” or even “stupid.” Those mistakes got picked up and amplified by others. The “quotations” in the headlines are actually from other commentators, not from the scientists. For the record, the following words don’t appear anywhere in the original research: stupid, stupidity, stupidly, brainpower (low or otherwise), dumb. Not even prove or proves. And not, um, egghead.

Eidelman did not point out the irony of how such shoddy treatment only reinforces the kind of “stupid” stereotype that the commentators are complaining about. You can leave that to me.

“It’s not that political conservatism promotes low-effort thought,” he told me. “What we found is that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same.”

Eidelman drew an analogy: He might carry an umbrella because it’s raining, but that’s completely different from saying that it’s raining because he carries an umbrella. In other words, while low-effort (or “first-response”) thinking tends to promote political conservatism, being conservative doesn’t tend to promote low-effort thinking.

This conservative tendency is roughly reflected in clichés about “comfort zones” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” As Eidelman noted, certain “conservative” characteristics are built into humans for our benefit, such as the tendency to save our energy or avoid unnecessary risks.

“If you want to look at evolutionary history, people were more likely to survive if they assumed a person approaching was a threat,” he explained. “It was smarter to assume that unknown plant was poisonous rather than edible. Or the sooner you know your place in a society, the better your chances to thrive.”

Sometimes those “first responses” were correct: the stranger was indeed hostile or the plant was really poisonous. But sometimes the stranger would turn out to be an ally or the plant a healing herb. In those cases, the “first response” would be … well, wrong. Finding out if the first (“low-effort”) thinking was correct could be discovered only with “second-step” thinking.

“When people don’t have the opportunity to engage in political thinking, when you strip away the effortful thinking, they tend to be conservatives,” Eidelman said. “But that’s only concerning the first-step thinking. We don’t have much on what the second step is. It’s an open question if that first response is correct. We haven’t measured outcomes. We think the scales are tipped toward conservatism. But whether it’s good or right to challenge that depends on people’s values and goals.”

Eidelman wondered if this “low-effort” tendency might help explain at least one aspect of current American politics.

“Liberals might understand conservatives more than other way around, because liberals, in a way, started at the same place,” he suggested. So here’s a thought: could empathy explain why congressional Democrats are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to compromise more often on legislation than their Republican colleagues?

As we finished talking, it occurred to me that America’s Founding Fathers were literally invested in the status quo of the British colonies. They valued hierarchy, as their later writing of the Constitution proved. They preached personal responsibility. They sound a lot like political conservatives. But Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others did anything but stop at “low-effort” thinking. If they had, we might never have seen the American Revolution.

6 thoughts on “Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

  1. I thoroughly agree with the premise that Political Conservatives are not stupid. In my view, they are not stupid at all. No one can be that devious and be stupid. It just isn’t possible. I think many of them are demonically brilliant.

  2. The reply above is exactly the type of response conservative reactionaries gave in your post, Jim, except from the liberal wing. The types of definitions rooted in behavior or three aspects that your researcher mentions contributes to reductionistic thinking that has always annoyed me about social science research. Applying it in real life rarely works–people on both sides of the political divide, if provoked enough, organize into pressure groups or political arms (Tea Party, Occupy Wall St., et al) because they’re as mad as hell and not gonna take it any more–conservative don’t especially corner the market on “embracing the status quo.” as liberal/leftists don’t own the get-up-and-do-something pattern.

  3. Fair comment, Alex. One additional note: Scott Eidelman told me that when he and his colleagues started their research, they weren’t looking for conservatives. They began by analyzing “low-effort” thinking. As they identified common “traits,” they found a correlation with the three characteristics listed in the article, which were found together most consistently among people who identified as political conservatives. Roughly speaking, you might say they started by describing the shoe and then found out who fit it most consistently.
    (Added April 11) Here’s what Eidelman told me: “We started with low-effort thought. The literature tends to go along with conservatives more than liberals. People stick with what they know … feeling responsible for their actions: that led us to conservatives. That’s where the signs were pointing. We started with low-effort thought and asked where does it lead us.”

  4. Shocked. Shocked I am. A liberal asked a liberal psychologist who just published a paper “proving” that liberals are more thoughtful and nuanced if the conservative reaction to his paper is correct, and he said no!

    Imagine that if you can!

  5. Thank you for reading and commenting. If after reading my entire post you came away thinking Eidelman was saying liberals were “more thoughtful and nuanced,” then something went wrong. If my article really left that impression, then the fault is mine, not his. That wasn’t his point. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  6. Jim,
    I more than enjoyed the comments regarding “Breaking News”. It made me think of a reading this morning which came from the Holy Book and comments from Oswald Chambers regarding worship and prayer, as “neither could be effective without the other”. It is like eating food and having been more aware lately of eating aimlessly without thought. For me, eating when not hungry causes it to be worthless, an uneasy act — less human, in the end. About prayer, Chambers says the reason our prayers are empty is that we only have an interest in sentimental, shallow prayer without deeper thought. So begins a hardness toward God which causes a hardness towards other people, he reminds. God says also in Isaiah fifty-nine “and He wondered that there was no intercessor” when needed. In other words, no one of truth to speak, to interrupt a worn out way of thought that goes nowhere.

Comments are closed.