Conservatives Have a Mind of Their Own


According to a report in the March 16, 2012 edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kermit was right: it isn’t easy being green. Apparently it’s not easy to advocate firearms control or single payer healthcare, or any other liberal or progressive position. The study, titled “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism” was written by Scott Eidelman, Christian S. Crandall, Jeffrey A. Goodman and John C. Blanchar.

The authors defined conservatism as having specific traits: acceptance of hierarchy, belief in personal responsibility, and preference for the status quo.

Acceptance of hierarchy translates into a willingness to tolerate the maldistribution of wealth and a tax system that benefits the 1%. Historically, there seem to have been lots of monarchies and dictatorships, and very few democracies.

Even experiments with democracy, the Roman republic and the first French republic backslid into monarchic societies.

The researchers conducted their study among 85 customers at a New England bar. The subjects were given problems to solve, under varying conditions which made thinking difficult — then their solutions to the problems were compared with answers given without stress.

As conditions made thinking more difficult or demanding, the solutions presented were increasingly conservative. The methods used included increasing blood alcohol levels’ pressure to provide a solution quickly’ working on a second task’ and finally, trying to come up with a solution without thinking too hard. When participants were encouraged to really think hard about the questions, they tended to be more liberal, but when they were told to give a quick first impression, or were faced with a distraction, the responses skewed to the right.

The researchers did a good job of controlling for gender, education and political identification. They avoided subjects with strong political opinions might have learned to come up with a response consistent with their beliefs in a short time.

One possibility is that conservatism is the default setting in the human mind. Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes has proposed that human self awareness is a recent evolutionary development, dating back only about four millennia.

Four millennia ago society was a lot simpler, and technology more limited, so that conservative solutions, and thought patterns were likely to be more useful than progressive thought.

Modern life is far more complex, and societal choices have more far-reaching implications, but evolutionary biology is a slow process, and when it doesn’t keep up with changing conditions may lead to species extinction. Back in 2002, then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey said "Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people." Congressman Armey based his conclusion on the fact that liberals were drawn to "occupations of the heart,’’ while conservatives favored "occupations of the brain," like economics or engineering.

His thinking was fuzzy enough to make his conclusions questionable, if not downright wrong, but UCLA studies have indicated that there are differences in brain structures between liberals and conservatives, and the Eidelman report may indicate what steps will be needed to present liberal ideas convincingly.

Presenting liberal ideas to social problems will take more time, and require more effort than offering conservative solutions, but if there’s any hope of continued social progress, it’s an investment that will have to me made.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2012

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