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Conservatives May Have More Self-Control

A strong belief in free will could give conservatives an edge over liberals when it comes to self-restraint.
One of these animals has been eating more.... (Photo: Mircea Maties/Shutterstock)

One of these animals has been eating more.... (Photo: Mircea Maties/Shutterstock)

We all have our moments of weakness, when our self-control fails us and we give in to our vices, whatever those may be. (I mean, mint Oreos, am I right?) As it turns out, our political ideologies might influence how easily we give in to those bad habits. A new study shows that conservatives may have more self-control than liberals, and that a major driver of the relationship between conservatism and self-control is the extent to which we believe we are responsible for our own actions; that is, the extent to which we believe in free will.

Previous research has linked a belief in free will to goal-directed actions and the ability to overcome certain temptations, and it is well established that conservatives tend to identify with the notion that we’re all responsible for our own actions. And so it follows, the study authors hypothesized, that conservatives might also have more self-control. To find out, the study authors had participants complete a version of the Stroop test—a tricky task commonly used to evaluate psychological capabilities—in which the researchers presented the test takers with colored words on background colors that mismatched the words (for example, the word "blue" on a yellow background). The participants had to identify the color described by the word without getting distracted by the background color, and the speed with which they were able to do so gave researchers an idea of how well the participants could maintain focus on the task. The team also assessed the participants’ belief in free will and political ideology. As expected, the study found that, as conservatism increased, so too did belief in free will, and, consequently, measures of self-control improved.

These findings offer a new lens through which to view previous research that found differences between conservatives and liberals—say, the fact that conservative college students tend to get better grades than their liberal counterparts. “[It] could be that conservatives believe they have greater control over their performance and thus expend greater self-control in their academic pursuits,” the study authors write. Additionally, understanding how beliefs about free will interact with self-control could inform strategies to augment restraint, in both liberals and conservatives, thus evening the playing field.