“Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism”

… ┬áis 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