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Liberals and Conservatives Solve Problems Differently

And there's evidence that the approach favored by those on the left works better.
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Archimedes Thoughtful, by Fetti. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Archimedes Thoughtful, by Fetti. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The first recorded "Eureka!" moment is widely attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, who supposedly solved a perplexing problem while relaxing in the bath. If the possibly apocryphal story accurately reflects his problem-solving methodology, it gives us a good clue regarding his political beliefs.

Suffice to say, if he somehow returned to us today, he wouldn't be voting for Donald Trump.

Research teams led by Carola Salvi of Northwestern University have recently published two papers on the topic of how humans faced with problems arrive at solutions. One finds that liberals are more likely than conservatives to rely on the sudden-burst-of-insight strategy. The other provides evidence that, at least under time constraints, this method produces more correct answers than conscious, analytical thinking.

"Insight solutions have superior accuracy, because they emerge into consciousness in an all-or-nothing fashion when the unconscious solving problem is complete," Salvi and her colleagues write in the journal Thinking and Reasoning. "Analytic solutions can be guesses based on conscious, prematurely terminated processing."

The researchers, including Drexel University's John Kounios, describe four experiments. The first featured 38 Northwestern undergraduates, who were given 15 seconds to solve each of 120 word problems. In each case, they were given three words (such as work, fishing, and tennis) and asked to produce a fourth that can be combined with each of them (net).

"Liberals are more likely than conservatives to use an insight strategy" to solve the problems.

After giving each answer, participants pressed a button to indicate whether they arrived at their solution through sudden insight or conscious analysis. "Of all responses labeled as insight, an average of 93.7 were correct," the researchers report. In contrast, only 78.3 percent of the answers derived via analysis were accurate.

In the second experiment, 51 undergraduates were given 16 seconds apiece to solve either a four- or five-letter anagram. An impressive 97.6 percent of insight-derived answers were correct, compared to 91.9 of analysis-derived responses.

The third experiment featured 110 undergraduates at an Italian university, who were allotted 15 seconds apiece to solve 88 rebus puzzles. These were clearly a bit harder, but the pattern was identical to that of the American students: Answers gleaned by insight were correct 78.5 percent of the time, and 63.2 percent of the time for those solved by analytic thinking.

A final study, also conducted in Italy and asking students to identify objects depicted in fragmented line drawings, produced similar results.

The researchers concede that they can't say if their results "generalize from laboratory puzzles to real-world problems that may be more complex, and do not have a response deadline." In these experiments, time pressure led analytical thinkers to frequently offer incorrect responses based on partial information; given more time, they may have come up with a better one.

That said, many real-world problems have to be solved on deadline. What's more, "I'm still working on it" is generally a better response than blurting out a wrong answer.

Salvi's second study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, describes a similar experiment with an added feature: Its participants, also Northwestern students, were screened for political ideology.

Like their counterparts in the first study, participants solved a series of word puzzles, and indicated whether they had come to each answer via careful analysis or an "insight" moment. Once again, the researchers report answers obtained using sudden insights were more accurate.

The key finding, however, was that "liberals are more likely than conservatives to use an insight strategy" to solve the problems.

"This view is consistent with similar results across behavioral, neuroscientific, and genetic studies, which converge in showing that conservatives have more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals have a less structured and flexible cognitive style."

So Salvi has provided more evidence of the different thinking styles of liberals and conservatives. She argues such knowledge could have positive practical consequences, writing that "a better understanding in cognitive strategies between individuals holding different social/political orientations may benefit efforts to help them reconcile differences in dealing with social concerns."

If you're trying to reach agreement or compromise, understanding how the other side thinks is always a good thing.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.