By Tom Jacobs
According to a recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative, while only 21 percent call themselves liberal. (Another 35 percent are self-identified moderates.)
This gap has long puzzled scholars. If left and right ideologies comprise a mutually dependent yin-yang system, reflecting different approaches to meeting our most basic needs, shouldn’t they be held by roughly the same proportion of people?
One possible explanation is that some “conservatives” wear the label quite loosely. Another points to the long-established link between right-wing attitudes and a tendency to perceive the world as threatening. In an era where the latest scare is constantly being hyped on television and the Internet, it stands to reason that conservatism would dominate.
Newly published research proposes a somewhat different, and quite provocative, answer.
A research team led by University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman argues that conservatism — which the researchers identify as “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo” — may be our default ideology. If we don’t have the time or energy to give a matter sufficient thought, we tend to accept the conservative argument.
“When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient,” the researchers write in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “These conditions promote conservative ideology.”
Eidelman and his colleagues’ paper will surely outrage many on the left (who will resist the notion of conservatism as somehow natural) and the right (who will take offense to the idea that their ideology is linked to low brainpower). The researchers do their best to preemptively answer such criticism.
“We do not assert that conservatives fail to engage in effortful, deliberate thought,” they insist. “We find that when effortful thought is disengaged, the first step people take tends to be in a conservative direction.”
The researchers describe four studies that provide evidence backing up their thesis. In each case, they used a different method to disrupt the process of deliberation, and found that doing so increased the odds of someone espousing conservative views.
Their first method was a time-tested one: inebriation. Researchers stood outside the exit of a busy New England tavern and offered to measure patrons’ blood alcohol level if they would fill out a short survey. Eighty-five drinkers agreed, expressing their opinions of 10 statements such as “production and trade should be free of government interference.”
“Bar patrons reported more conservative attitudes as their level of alcohol intoxication increased,” the researchers report. ….
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