“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

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