“Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism”

…  is the title of a fascinating paper that came out in the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin last month. Scott Eidelman and colleagues tested “the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism”. This hypothesis resulted from the existing literature on comparisons between conservatives and liberals and how ideological differences map onto psychological processes. For example, it has been found that conservatives are more likely to give person, rather than situation, explanations for behavior. In other words, conservatives are more likely to explain the actions of individuals in terms of personal motivation and responsibility than in terms of wider economic or societal constraints. “He is unemployed because he is too lazy to get a job” would be an example of such a person explanation. The emphasis on personal responsibility is a typical component of conservative ideology, and we also know that people are more likely to give person explanations when they do not put much effort into thinking about the issue.

A second example of the negative relationship between conservative ideology and effortful thinking is acceptance of hierarchy. It turns out that we are very good at noticing cues relating to relative status, and remembering hierarchical relationships. Preference for hierarchical systems where some people are at the top and others are at the bottom implies an opposition to equality – another hallmark of conservatism. A third component discussed by Eidelman et al. is preference for the status quo, a conservative value that is easy to endorse with little effort.

Given these mappings between components of conservative ideology and the ease with which they are accepted when we do not put much effort into thinking about them, the authors predicted that people could be manipulated into endorsing conservative attitudes by restricting their thought processes. In order to test this prediction, Eidelman et al. carried out four studies in which they examined the effects of restricted thought on conservative attitudes. In their first study, the researchers examined the extent to which alcohol intoxication affects attitudes. Groups of researchers stood outside a bar and measured the blood alcohol content of people as they left the bar. The participants were also asked to fill in a simple survey designed to measure conservative attitudes. Blood alcohol content and the participants’ self-identification as liberal or conservative were two significant predictors of conservative attitudes. People who identified as conservative were, not surprisingly, found to have higher conservative attitudes than liberals, but the key finding is that intoxication was associated with more conservative attitudes for both conservative and liberal participants.

In the second study, the researchers actively manipulated the cognitive resources available to participants. All participants were given scales measuring both liberal and conservative attitudes, but half the participants were asked to complete these scales while completing a second task in which they had to count a series of audio tones. The participants who had to divide their attention between the questionnaires and the counting task had increased conservative values and decreased liberal values compared to participants who were not under cognitive load.

In study three, the researchers manipulated time pressure. In this experiment participants were asked to respond to 25 terms relating to conservatism (e.g., private property) and 25 terms relating to liberalism (e.g., civil rights). For each term, participants indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the concept. Half the participants were given as long as they wanted to respond to each item and half were placed under time pressure: they only had half a second to read each term and just one second to respond. The participants placed in the high time pressure condition gave higher ratings to the conservative terms than the participants not under time pressure. There was no effect of time pressure on responses to the liberal items.

Finally, in study 4, the researchers told participants to rate 30 items relating to conservatism and liberalism. This time, participants were placed into two groups given different instructions. One group was told to think hard before making a response. The other group was told to give an immediate response and not think too hard. As in study 3, the manipulation affected conservatism but not liberalism: those told not to think too hard gave higher ratings to the conservative terms.

Across these four studies, the authors found a fairly robust effect: When the ability to engage in effortful thinking is impaired, participants were more likely to endorse political conservatism. An important point to note regarding the findings of this study is that the authors

“argue that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism, not that conservatives rely on low-effort thought. Similarly, we do not assert that conservatives fail to engage in effortful, deliberative thought but rather that disengagement of effortful thinking leads to cognitions consonant with political conservatism.

Although the authors do not make the simplistic claim that political conservatism can be explained in terms of failure to think, they do point out a serious implication of their work:

“Without the means or motive to override an initial impulse that promotes conservative ideology, the political scales may be tipped toward the right of center and may provide a contributing explanation for what has been described as a conservative bias in American politics.”

This means that unless we override default, reactionary responses to arguments and/or situations, we are likely to endorse conservative ideology. In many situations this may be relatively easy, as there may be few demands on our cognitive resources and the issue can be given lots of attention. But if we are forced to go with our gut reactions, we may be more likely to endorse a position we would not endorse given more time to think.


Eidelman S, Crandall CS, Goodman JA, & Blanchar JC (2012). Low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 38 (6), 808-20 PMID: 22427384

Creationist schools to open in the UK (?)

According to an article in the Guardian, three free schools run by groups endorsing creationism are due to open in the UK in the next year. For those outside the UK, free schools are similar to charter schools:

“Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ’one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up. Free Schools could be primary or secondary schools. They could be located in traditional school buildings or appropriate community spaces such as office buildings or church halls. They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, visionary teachers or committed parents – who want to make a difference to the educational landscape. They might be needed because there simply are not enough school places in a local area and children have to travel too far to the nearest school.”

Note that although free schools are funded by the state, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. This has been taken by some religious groups as an opportunity to sneak anti-science views into children’s education. Another issue is that teachers working in free schools do not need to have qualifications in teaching.

Thirty-three of the 102 free schools that will open next year describe themselves as faith-based. The Guardian piece discusses three of these schools:

“Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, a private school due to reopen in September with state funding, says on its website that it will present creationism as science and affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is “not just a theory but a fact”.”

Teaching creationism in science classes is illegal in the UK, and other free schools have been turned down on these grounds, so how did Grindon Hall get away with it? Later in the article we are told:

Grindon Hall says it teaches evolution as “an established scientific principle, as far as it goes”. However, the school’s policy document adds: “We believe no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, ie why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.”

The school’s principal says this document is obsolete and the school would not teach creationism in science. “…That document is from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres.

“If children question for themselves their origins, that’s what we want them to do – to ask sensible, responsible questions. Am I here by accident, or – dare I use the word – design?”

So they are not planning to teach “creation science”, but it seems reasonable to assume that children will be taught creationist doctrine elsewhere, and not just in RE classes. The original policy document has been removed from the Grindon Hall website, but has been archived by the British Humanist Association

What about the other two schools?

The Sevenoaks Christian school, due to open next year, says on its website: “The government has said that free schools cannot teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this.”

A third free school approved by the government to open next year, the Exemplar-Newark Business academy, is a fresh proposal from a group whose previous application was turned down because of concerns over its teaching of creationism. Backers of the school in Nottinghamshire say creationism will be taught only in religious studies.

So it would appear that the Guardian’s claims are somewhat overblown. None of the schools now claim that they will present creationism as science – they know that they will not be permitted to so so. However, it is fairly clear that, given the choice, they would teach creationism in the science classroom. There is some debate over whether any of these schools really endorse creationism proper, or whether they subscribe to the more general Christian belief that god created the world, but not in the manner described in the Book of Genesis. Regardless, there are many serious problems with faith schools:

Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families which share the religion of the school. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities.

Most secondary faith schools are also allowed to discriminate in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behavior outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion.

Most secondary faith schools are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not subject to Ofsted inspection and is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion.

RE in such schools rarely covers other religions in any detail and almost certainly will not include non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails.

Because personal social health and economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, faith schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. The BHA is particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights.

Hat tip to Ed Stupple for suggesting I write about this story.

George Miller

George Miller, one of the instigators of the “cognitive revolution”, has died. He passed away on Sunday July 22nd of natural causes, aged 92. I mentioned Miller’s classic 1956 paper in my first post on this blog. Here’s a nice article he wrote for Trends in Cognitive Science in 2003: “The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective”. The article starts:

Cognitive science is a child of the 1950s, the product of a time when psychology, anthropology and linguistics were redefining themselves and computer science and neuroscience as disciplines were coming into existence. Psychology could not participate in the cognitive revolution until it had freed itself from behaviorism, thus restoring cognition to scientific respectability. By then, it was becoming clear in several disciplines that the solution to some of their problems depended crucially on solving problems traditionally allocated to other disciplines. Collaboration was called for: this is a personal account of how it came about.

Miller writes “[a]t the time it was happening I did not realize that I was,
in fact, a revolutionary”. He was, of course one of the most important figures in psychology, and will be missed.

The Psychology of Science

The Psychology of Science is the study of

any form of scientific or technological thought or behavior, with the understanding that scientific thought and behavior are defined both narrowly and broadly. Narrowly defined, the field refers to thought and behavior of professional scientists and technologists. Broadly defined, the field includes thought and behavior of any person or people (past or present) of any age (infants to the elderly) engaged in theory construction, learning scientific or mathematical concepts, model building, hypothesis testing, scientific reasoning, problem finding or solving, or creating or working on technology. Indeed, mathematical, engineering, and invention activities are included as well.

This weekend the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Society for the Psychology of Science and Technology (ISPST) is being held in Pittsburgh. Past conferences have been in Zacatecas (2006), Berlin (2008), and Berkeley (2010). Although I did not go the first conference, I have been to the others, and the ISPST conference ranks among my favorite, given that the focus of most of my work falls under the Psychology of Science umbrella. At these conferences I have met and/or listened to talks by several excellent scholars, and have made many new friends.

I am looking forward to hearing the keynote address by Paul Thagard (who has an nice blog), Clark Chinn, Iris Tabak, and Katy Börner. I am also expecting interesting presentations from Keisha Varmer, Amy Masnick, Susanne Koerber, Bill Brewer, and Ryan Tweney (among others).

Dishonesty, Bias, and Replication in Psychology

In the wake of the cases of Diederik Stapel last year, and Marc Hauser the year before, another depressing case of academic fraud has come to light:

Smeesters, who was Professor of Consumer and Society in the Rotterdam School of Management [Part of Erasmus University – SC], was found guilty by the Inquiry of ‘data selection’ and failing to keep suitable data records. Smeesters resigned his post after admitting to using a ‘blue dot technique’ whereby, after achieving a null result, he omitted participants who failed to read the instructions properly (7 to 10 per study, he claims), thus lifting the findings into statistical significance – a procedure he failed to detail in his affected papers. However, Smeesters blamed the unavailability of his raw data on nothing more heinous than a computer crash and a lab move. The Inquiry said it ‘doubted the credibility’ of these reasons.

On the face of it, removing participants who did not demonstrate that they had read the instructions does not seem problematic. However, the press release from Erasmus University states:

Two articles were found to have irregularities with findings that, in a statistical sense, are highly unlikely. The raw data forming the basis of these articles was not available for inspection by third parties, and the professor indicated that he had selected data so that the sought-after effects were statistically significant.

The problems with these papers came to light when a U.S. scientist analyzed the published data from one of Smeesters’ papers and “and found that the data were ‘too good to be true.'” The technique used by this scientist is a new method for looking for unlikely patterns of data. At present, the technique is an unpublished secret. The investigating panel at Erasmus University

asked two statistical experts to analyze the method; after concluding it was “valid,” it took a close look at the papers co-authored by Smeesters—including those still under review— for which he had control over the data. The statistical method could be applied to a total of 22 experiments; of those, three experiments were problematic…. [T]he university panel goes on to say that it can’t determine whether the numbers Smeesters says he massaged existed at all. He could not supply raw data for the three problematic experiments; they had been stored on a computer at his home that had crashed in September 2011 and whose data his brother-in-law had assured him were irretrievable. In addition, the “paper-and-pencil data” had also been lost when Smeesters moved his office at the school. The panel says it cannot establish Smeesters committed fraud, but says he is responsible for the loss of the raw data and their massaging.

This certainly looks like a case in which it would be easy to be cynical about the “conveniently” missing electronic and paper data, however it is possible that the data did exist and really did get lost. So, unlike Stapel, Smeesters may not be guilty of fabricating data, but I find his cavalier attitude toward the data massaging rather troubling.

According to the report, Smeesters said this type of massaging was nothing out of the ordinary. He “repeatedly indicates that the culture in his field and his department is such that he does not feel personally responsible, and is convinced that in the area of marketing and (to a lesser extent) social psychology, many consciously leave out data to reach significance without saying so.”

Ed Yong, who has also commented on the Smeesters case, published an article in Nature in May in which he discusses the attitudes of some psychologists towards biased data collection and reporting:

In a survey of more than 2,000 psychologists, Leslie John, a consumer psychologist from Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, showed that more than 50% had waited to decide whether to collect more data until they had checked the significance of their results, thereby allowing them to hold out until positive results materialize. More than 40% had selectively reported studies that “worked”. On average, most respondents felt that these practices were defensible. “Many people continue to use these approaches because that is how they were taught,” says Brent Roberts, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

What is to be done? I think there are two key issues. First, replication studies need to be conducted with greater frequency and journals need to willing to publish such studies. When Darrell Bem published a paper in which he provided evidence for psi phenomena last year, many were naturally skeptical. Stuart Richie, Chris French, and Richard Wiseman carried out replications of three of Bem’s four experiments, but their results did not show evidence for psi. When they submitted their work to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the same journal that published Bem’s paper, it was rejected on the grounds that JPSP does not publish replications. According to Chris French

We then submitted it to Science Brevia and received the same response. The same thing happened when we submitted it to Psychological Science… When we submitted it to the British Journal of Psychology, it was finally sent for peer review. One referee was very positive about it but the second had reservations and the editor rejected the paper. We were pretty sure that the second referee was, in fact, none other than Daryl Bem himself, a suspicion that the good professor kindly confirmed for us. It struck us that he might possibly have a conflict of interest with respect to our submission. Furthermore, we did not agree with the criticisms and suggested that a third referee be brought in to adjudicate. The editor rejected our appeal.

Ritchie, Wiseman, and French’s paper was eventually published in PLoS ONE.

The second issue that needs addressing is the type of papers that psychology journals want to publish. As discussed above, editors are not keen on replications. In addition, they (in my experience and that of many of my colleagues) tend to prefer “sexy”, “newsworthy” research to solid incremental science. It is not uncommon for a psychologist to be told “your work is sound and you’ve conducted the experiments well, but all you do is build on the main findings that have already been published by X and Y. Sure, you show the boundary conditions under which the effect occurs and extend the work to a novel sample, but here at the Journal of Exciting Psychology we want to publish novel findings.”

The Giant’s Causeway and the Nature of Scientific Thinking

The Giant’s Causeway is a spectacular natural formation of some 40,000 basalt columns on the north coast of Ireland. The site managed by the National trust who have been receiving a lot of criticism for the inclusion of a young earth creationist interpretation of the formation at the new visitor centre.

The interactive exhibition in question includes an audio package re-enacting debates between historic figures, who argued over the origins of the Causeway, as well as their contrasting biblical and scientific beliefs on the origins of the planet.

The exchanges end with a further clip stating: “This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

“Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

“Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

“Young earth creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.”

Northern Ireland evangelical umbrella group, the Caleb Foundation, welcomed the inclusion.

In a statement, the Foundation’s chairman, Wallace Thompson, said: “As an umbrella organisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical christians in Northern Ireland, we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway visitor centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this.

Young Earth Creationism is rooted in the idea that the world was created in 4004 BC, a figure derived in the 17th century by James Ussher. In reality, the Giant’s Causeway was formed around 50-60 million years ago.

There is a link to a phone interview with Richard Dawkins on Jerry Coyne’s website. A shorter version can be found on Eric MacDonald’s blog. In this clip, a caller gives a list of “creationist scientists” in response to Dawkins’ claim that no reputable scientists believe in a young earth. Eric MacDonald gives some details on these scientists. Eric notes:

The whole thing is quite bizarre. Here are highly trained and accredited scientists who are actually betraying science in order to uphold the biblical story of creation. And they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: young earth creationists, young fossil creationists, old earth creationists, Floodists, etc., bringing their expertise to bear on something completely unscientific, so that people like Mrs. White, who thinks of herself as an intelligent, thoughtful person, can claim to be using the latest scientific knowledge to underwrite her biblical beliefs.

The adducing of a list of scientists who endorse a claim to support that claim, rather than using appropriate evidence, is a classic creationist tactic. If was this approach that led to NCSE‘s satirical Project Steve (of which I am a proud signatory!)

Although there is some legitimacy to the claim that the people listed by the caller are scientists, it is not the case that they are using scientific methods and knowledge when considering issues that are in conflict with biblical literalism. Scientific thinking is a process, not an inherent characteristic of an individual who has received a doctorate. In a forthcoming chapter, Corinne Zimmerman and I describe scientific thinking as

“an umbrella term that encompasses the reasoning and problem-solving skills involved in generating, testing and revising hypotheses or theories, and in the case of fully developed skills, reflecting on the process of knowledge acquisition and change”.

Anybody can think scientifically about an issue, regardless of profession or educational achievement; conversely, just because someone has a PhD, it does not necessarily follow that they will apply scientific principles and knowledge in every aspect of their life. In fact such people are likely to be extremely rare. In part because we do not all have the requisite knowledge in every domain and in part because thinking scientifically can be effortful, which leads to a trade-off: in many everyday situations we do not need to expand the cognitive effort necessary to reach a conclusion using scientific methods.

However, I would argue that the “scientists” who expound creationism (along with its offspring, Intelligent Design) are going further than simply failing to apply scientific knowledge and methods to bear. They are deliberately ignoring all the evidence from multiple disciplines which points to the true age of the earth. PZ Myers offers a cute analogy:

A carpenter is a person who practices a highly skilled trade, carpentry, to create new and useful and lovely things out of wood. It is a non-trivial occupation, there’s both art and technology involved, and it’s a productive talent that contributes to people’s well-being. It makes the world a better place. And it involves wood.

A pyromaniac is a person with a destructive mental illness, in which they obsess over setting things on fire. Most pyromaniacs have no skill with carpentry, but some do; many of them have their own sets of skills outside of the focus of their illness. Pyromania is destructive and dangerous, contributes nothing to people’s well-being, and makes the world a worse place. And yes, it involves wood, which is a wonderful substance for burning.

Calling a creationist a scientist is as offensive as praising a pyromaniac for their skill at carpentry, when all they’ve shown is a talent for destroying things, and typically have a complete absence of any knowledge of wood-working. Producing charcoal and ash is not comparable to building a house or crafting furniture or, for that matter, creating anything.

You can’t call any creationist a scientist, because what they’re actively promoting is a destructive act of tearing down every beautiful scrap of knowledge the real scientists have acquired.

The Effects of Behavior on Beliefs

Richard Wiseman has an interesting article at New Statesman. He describes how

[a]t the end of the Korean War, 21 American prisoners-of-war chose to remain in communist Korea and openly sided with an enemy that had killed thousands of their comrades. In addition, a surprisingly large number of the American service personnel who did return home enthusiastically expounded the strengths of communism. The family and friends of these servicemen were stunned, and the world’s media flocked to Korea to report the story. Some researchers suggested that the Koreans had brainwashed the American soldiers with flashing lights, hypnosis or mind-altering drugs.

They were all wrong.

So how was this feat, of converting American soldiers to enthusiastic supporters of communism, achieved?

Shortly after capture, the Chinese guards asked servicemen to jot down a few short pro-communist statements (“Communism is wonderful”, and “Communism is the way of the future”). Many of the Americans were happy to oblige because the request seemed so trivial. A few weeks later the guards upped the ante and asked the prisoners to read the statements aloud to themselves. A couple of weeks later the Americans were asked to read the statements out to their fellow prisoners, and to engage in mock debates arguing why they believed the statements to be correct. Finally, fresh fruit or sweets were offered to any soldiers who were prepared to write pro-communist essays for the camp newsletter. Once again, many of the prisoners were happy to oblige.

The Chinese did not have to resort to arcane brainwashing techniques. Instead, they simply ensured that the prisoners were encouraged repeatedly to support communism, and then leave them to develop beliefs that were consistent with their behaviour.

Wiseman describes findings from laboratory studies, demonstrating that simply asking people to endorse certain attitudes or opinions can affect their actual beliefs. These findings conflict with our common sense intuitions about the cause-effect relationship of belief and behavior. If we are not aware of this subtle effect, we can be manipulated to support the values and opinions of others:

Having people repeatedly sing a national anthem will make them more patriotic. Making children pray every morning will increase the likelihood of them adopting religious beliefs.

We can use Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory to explain why these shifts in attitudes or beliefs occur. Festinger’s theory asserts that when people hold two inconsistent attitudes or beliefs, or behave in a way that is not in keeping with their beliefs, they experience cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance, they will alter their beliefs.

To test this theory Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) conducted what is now a classic study in social psychology. Participants were asked to engage in boring, repetitive tasks. They were asked to take 12 spools of thread off a board, put the spools back on, take them off again, and so on, for 30 minutes. They were then asked to turn pegs in holes to the left, then right, then back again, for another 30 minutes. The participants were next instructed to go out and meet the next participant (in reality, an accomplice of the experimenters) and tell her that the experiment was a lot of fun. Some of the participants were paid $1, others were paid $20 (quite a lot of money back in 1959!). Afterwards, the participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of the tasks they had engaged in. Those who were paid $20 gave the tasks a low rating – as one might expect – but those who were paid only $1 rated the tasks as more enjoyable.

When I describe this study to students, they are often confused – surely the person who was paid lots of money would be happy to go along with the idea that the experiment was fun? The findings seem to be the wrong way round. However, it makes sense when we think about conflicting behaviors and beliefs. The participants’ verbal behavior (what they said to the next participant) was to endorse the idea that the boring, repetitive tasks were fun. The verbal behavior is in clear conflict with the participants’ experience. However, those who were paid the higher sum have an easy alternative explanation for their behavior: they were paid $20 to lie. Those who were only paid $1 are not likely to see the money as sufficient cause for their verbal behavior, so another explanation must be found. The reason they claimed the tasks were fun was because the tasks were fun. Their attitudes toward the tasks changed so as to be in line with their behavior.

So be careful if someone asks you to “pretend” to endorse a belief contrary to what you actually think. It could lead to a gradual shift in your beliefs! This is why we also need to vigilant when authority figures ask children to repeat statements of ideology. Coercing the verbal behavior of children can be a type of brainwashing.


Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of abnormal psychology, 58 (2), 203-10 PMID: 13640824