Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On living in the real world

Recently a friend alerted me to a KU News Release, "Distractions, quick thinking lead to conservative thoughts, research finds." It begins,
Could knocking back a few beers influence a person's views on property rights or the role of government in production and trade?
By asking bargoers to take a political survey and blow into a Breathalyzer, a scholarly investigator at the University of Kansas has found that as blood alcohol levels rise, people become increasingly intoxicated with conservative policies, too.
Sounds interesting, methinks. So I pours meself a cold one and reads on.

The press release refers to a study, Low-Effort Thought Promotes PoliticalConservatism, by two researchers from the University of Arkansas and one each from universities of Kansas and Wisconsin. They introduce their study thus, 
Conservative political ideology in Western democracies may be identified by several components, including an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo… We describe how attitudes and behaviors consistent with these components increase as a consequence of thinking that requires little time, effort, or awareness. From this starting point, we develop the argument that political conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking.
The researchers tell us:
[The] data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases…
Hmm. Should I feel insulted? In a moment I’ll tell you why I shouldn’t. But first, another quote to the same effect.
We argue that low-effort information processing promotes the ideological content of political conservatism. When time and effort are in short supply, emission of responses consistent with conservative ideology should increase [“emission of responses”? – dje].
The researchers summarized four studies conducted to test their hypothesis.
In Study 1, we took advantage of alcohol consumption as a common and powerful means of disrupting deliberative thought. Alcohol restricts cognitive capacity and impairs controlled responding while leaving automatic thinking largely intact.
The study consisted of surveying bar patrons by asking them questions about conservative ideas (e.g., “Production and trade should be free of government interference” and “Ultimately, privately [sic] property should be abolished”). The questions were answered on a 9 point scale (1 = strongly disagree; 9 = strongly agree). The results?
Bar patrons reported more conservative attitudes as their level of alcohol intoxication increased. Because alcohol limits cognitive capacity and disrupts controlled responding, while leaving automatic thinking largely intact, these data are consistent with our claim that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism.
The researchers consider the possibility that conservatives simply drink more alcohol than liberals, but ultimately dismiss the possibility.

To more fully test the hypothesis, the researches devised other means of disrupting cognitive ability.
In Study 2, we manipulated reliance on low-effort thought. Participants indicated their political attitudes by responding to several statements; half did so while their cognitive resources were depleted by working on a second task concurrently. With their attention divided, participants with depleted resources should be less able to engage in deliberative thinking when reporting their political attitudes. If the output of low-effort thought is consistent with conservative ideology, participants with depleted resources should indicate more conservative attitudes than those with ample cognitive resources.
The results were similar to the first study. Participants who were distracted by being assigned to work on another task while they answered questions designed to show their political convictions, revealed more conservative attitudes.
Participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than those not under cognitive load. Because cognitive load depletes available mental resources, participants were left to draw more heavily on thinking that was easy and efficient. We maintain that this thinking promotes political conservatism. Cognitive load also produced a corresponding shift in liberal attitudes; when under load, participants’ endorsement of political liberalism decreased.
In studies 3 and 4, the researchers considered time pressure as a disruption to “effortful thinking.” Both studies involved participants responding to terms reflecting conservative and liberal ideas, again ranking their attitudes on a scale.
In the high-effort processing condition, participants were told to “think hard about each term before responding. Don’t give your first response. Instead, really put forth effort and consider the issue. Take your time and give a careful and thoughtful response.” In the low-effort processing condition, participants were told to “give your first, immediate response to the terms. Don’t think too hard about your response; don’t debate yourself. Instead, go quickly and give your first, initial response to the terms as soon as you read them.”
The outcome? As predicted, “time pressure increased endorsement of conservative terms.”
Processing instruction affected endorsement of political conservatism; those instructed to use low-effort thought endorsed conservative terms more than those who were instructed to use high-effort thought… When instructed to use shallow processing, political conservatism generated more agreement than when participants were instructed to think hard… When care, consideration, and cogitation increases, we find that endorsement of political conservatism decreases.
What are we to make of all this? The authors themselves hint at what I think is the most plausible explanation. In their concluding remarks, they state, “Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural.” Precisely so. I couldn’t have said it better myself, although I disagree that conservative thinking requires “correction.”

Conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and natural because they are consistent with reality. Since they are consistent with reality, it isn’t necessary to put forth the same degree of mental effort to maintain them as is necessary with liberalism. A conservative may have his cognitive capacity disrupted by alcohol, his cognitive load increased, and labor under intense time constraints and still express a basic conservative outlook because his consistent experience has been to have his conservatism constantly reinforced by daily experience with real life in the real world.

A liberal doesn’t have this luxury. Liberalism is rooted in an alternate conception of reality, a theoretical construct to which he adheres despite his experience. Whereas a conservative has his views daily confirmed by experience, a liberal has his views daily contradicted. It requires a sustained effort to maintain them. He suffers a kind of cognitive dissonance. When his mental capacity is disrupted by alcohol or his cognitive load is increased, or when he thinks under the pressure of time, his ability to maintain his liberal notions is reduced. He is overwhelmed. He reverts to what is basic, normal, natural, consistent with reality, which is to say, he begins sounding like a conservative.


Duane Steen said...

In my mind I see two types of liberals. 1. The elite who want to control us. 2. The mindless class of people who want everything handed to them by the governmlent. The elite have must have a lot of mental activity to figure out how to fool us with there grand plans. The mindless have to figure out how to get their fair share of handouts.
Duane Steen

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