Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Are Conservatives Stupid?

There seems to be a drumbeat of works showing that conservatives are stupid or at least not as smart as liberals. The latest to come to light is a study that shows the cognitive performance as a child is a predictor of "right-wing ideology". A quick summary of the paper can be found on the Huffington Post.

And now there's the new study linking conservative ideologies to "low-effort" thinking.

"People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response," the study's lead author, University of Arkansas psychologist Dr. Scott Eidelman, said in a written statement released by the university.

Does the finding suggest that conservatives are lazy thinkers?

"Not quite," Dr. Eidelman told The Huffington Post in an email. "Our research shows that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism, not that political conservatives use low-effort thinking."
The actual paper is here. I read the entire paper hoping that the authors would define exactly what they meant by "right-wing ideologies". This is never spelled out although it is alluded to in a footnote:

We focused on social-cultural conservatism rather than economic conservatism, given that the former is more clearly related to prejudice.

Oh. So their definition of right-wing ideology has nothing to do with things like free-market economics. Instead it is based on the notion that far-right equals Nazis. For a discussion about the relationship between Fascism to modern politics, see here. This has nothing to do with modern political parties.

Next we have an article from Rolling Stone: Can Drinking Make You Conservative? Again, this is based on the idea that conservatives use low-effort thinking. The reasoning is that something that would impair your higher-effort thinking might make you conservative. The Rolling Stone article was written by Chris Moody who is pushing his book The Republican Brain. His thesis is that conservatives look at the simple answer while liberals think the issue through and see aspects of the issue that elude conservatives. Here is one of his examples:

Or think about global warming. It's easy and, in a sense, natural to dismiss the reality of climate change whenever there's a big snowstorm. ("See, it's getting colder, not warmer!") It takes more effort to understand that climate is the statistical average of weather, to model the climate system and consider different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, and to try to craft policy that will stave off a future risk, while fully admitting there's some lingering uncertainty about how quickly and strongly it will manifest itself.

I love this one because we have just seen several articles saying "We are having a warm Spring so it must be global warming!" even though global temperature has not increased significantly in 15 years. Maybe Moody's superior liberal brain has an explanation for this that goes beyond his example... but I doubt it.

Just to be sure that conservatives are not offended by this article, Moody ends with this:

Many liberals will be tempted to cite the latest research to argue that they're in some way superior, while conservatives may feel insulted by this new assault from academics (who, they're already convinced, are radical socialists). But in truth, neither interpretation seems to be the correct one. The real upshot, it seems to me, may be that conservatives have a built-in political and communications advantage, simply because human beings, in their busy lives, cannot be expected to be in "liberal" mode all the time, or even most of the time. Or as the study authors conclude: "Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural."

In other words, you could argue that liberals are really the outliers here. They're the ones in the position of having to spin out complex, nuanced explanations for their views – explanations that, to much of the populace, feel like so much fancy-pants posturing. And while this may work for academia and wonkland, it can also get in the way of political effectiveness and leadership. 

No wonder another recent study finds that liberals, on average, drink more alcohol. Perhaps they just need to escape from their liberal brains sometimes. To me, that sounds pretty understandable.

Of course, Moody himself is one of the liberals who feels superior to conservatives. But he tries to mollify us by pointing out that liberals drink more, presumably to escape from the awful curse of knowing so much.

On to the study itself. Researchers stood outside a bar in New England and asked patrons who were leaving if they would answer a 10-question survey in exchange for knowing their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). They were also asked to rate themselves politically. Later the survey questions were compared to a standard based on their political rating to how well their rating predicted their answers. Follow-up studies rated people's attitudes while under cognitive load which would also interfere with higher thought.

So, does this study prove that liberal viewpoints are the result of deep thought while conservatives think with their gut? No. There are several major problems with the study.

The obvious ones are that their studies were too small (85 people) and too localized (one town in New England). They did not make any effort to determine people's views ahead of time. They simply compared results under stress against a predictor. The smaller the test group the less likely this will be.

The biggest problem with this study is the assumption of how opinions on different issues is formed in the first place. My opinion on ownership of property (one of the ten questions) was formed a long time ago based on serious thought about different economic systems. When asked, I do not recreate that process on the spot. But, the study seems to be based on the assumption that our attitudes are in constant flux. While I do reevaluate my positions over time, I do this when presented with new data, not when given a survey while drunk.

The way that they rated people is a little odd considering their conclusions. They used Kerlinger's Social Referent Scale which was last updated in 1984 (actually they used a subset of it). This was written during the Cold War and ranks attitudes accordingly. Global warming is not on the list so the effect of drinking or stress on belief in global warming is pure speculation. The point of Kerlinger's work was to show that conservatives and liberals have completely different sets of values instead of a simple attitude bipolarity. In researching this post I found that researchers testing variations of Moody's thesis throw out the conservative list of values and concentrate on the liberal list. This had 14 items but Moody only asked 10 so he trimmed Kerlinger by nearly 2/3s.

Anyway, given that the people being tested were college-age and came from a monoculture, it is possible to come up with a completely different conclusion than Moody's. It is likely that the people being tested said that they were more conservative than they really are because it is more socially acceptable. When drunk or under stress, their real attitudes showed through because they didn't have time to self-censor.

I have my own proof that self-censorship happens. During the 2004 presidential election, the only poll that correctly predicted the results was conducted by Rasmussen. This poll used prerecorded questions instead of a live person asking the questions. Rasmussen explained his results were more accurate because people being polled by a live person are more likely to give the answer that they think the pollster wants to hear. People who hated President Bush were far more vocal so people were more likely to say that they were planning to vote against Bush than to admit the truth.

The same probably happened here - someone in a New England town asks you if you are a liberal or a conservative. You say that you are more liberal than you really are because you don't want them to think less of you.

A third possibility is that Kerlinger's SRS is outdated and many people think of them selves as liberal but actually have several conservative viewpoints. There was no sign that Moody tried to control for this.

To summarize - the case for conservatives being stupid still has to be made.

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