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 TeaParty.org. “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.”
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.