Is Conservatism Our Default Ideology?

New research provides evidence that, when under time pressure or otherwise cognitively impaired, people are more likely to express conservative views.
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New research provides evidence that, when under time pressure or otherwise cognitively impaired, people are more likely to express conservative views.

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.

A second experiment featured 38 University of Maine undergraduates who filled out a similar survey. Half did so while working on “a distraction task” that required them to listen closely to a tape of tones that varied in pitch.

Those who had to do two things at once, and were thus under a heavier “cognitive load,” were more likely than their peers to endorse conservative attitudes, and less likely to endorse liberal positions.

In a third experiment, participants under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative viewpoints than those who were not. In a fourth experiment, those asked to “give your first, immediate response” were more likely to express support for words and phrases linked to conservatism (such as “law and order” and “authority”) than those who were instructed to “really put forth effort and consider the issue.”

Eidelman notes that this dynamic was found with different populations (college students and bar patrons) and in people from different parts of the country (three of the experiments were conducted in Maine, a fourth in Arkansas). He adds just one caveat: “Largely, our sample consisted of political centrists.”

“Ideology is multiply determined, coming from many sources, including values, experience, history and culture,” the researchers note. It’s unclear whether this rightward drift would occur in a population of strongly committed but cognitively overloaded liberals.

Similarly, it's not certain whether die-hard right-wingers would express even more conservative views under these conditions. What does seem clear is that our first impulse tends to be to stick with the tried and true, and this attitude aligns better with conservative ideas than liberal ones.

“The bad news for liberals is we’re saying that conservatism has a certain psychological advantage,” Eidelman said. “The bad news for conservatives is that someone who has a knee-jerk conservative reaction may change their mind about an issue after giving it more thought.”

Of course, it’s an open question as to what percentage of the population genuinely ponders political issues, rather than simply going with their initial instincts. This suggests liberals face a significant challenge in converting people to their cause.

As Eidelman puts it: “It might take a little extra effort to convince yourself (to support a liberal position), and a little extra work to convince others.”

In answer to many questions raised in comments on this story, the authors of the academic paper report they received no financial support for the research, authorship, or publication of their paper.