Study Suggests Conservatism Is Humans’ “Default Ideology”

March 29, 2012; Source: Miller-McCune (Pacific Standard)

As our readers frequently remind us, ideological leanings are rampant throughout the nonprofit sector. What nonprofits choose to do and the way they go about their business are, in effect, statements of ideological belief. Some nonprofits make their ideological leanings more overt, tilting explicitly liberal or conservative on the major social, economic, and political issues of the day.

By far the most popular article recently published by Miller-McCune describes a study led by University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman suggesting that conservatism is the “default ideology” of humans. As summarized in the McCune-Miller article, “If we don’t have the time or energy to give a matter sufficient thought, we tend to accept the conservative argument.”

As put by the research team in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient…These conditions promote conservative ideology.”

The implications are obvious. Our liberal friends will deny that the natural tendency of people is toward conservative thought. Our conservative friends will deny that conservative thought is the result of lazy or impaired thinking.

Okay everyone, chill out. Take a deep breath. Here’s how the research team got to this analysis:

  1. They tested people coming out of a bar in New England, offering to do a reading on the patrons’ blood alcohol levels if they would respond to ten statements along the lines of “production and trade should be free of government interference.” Of the 85 who agreed, the more inebriated they were, the more conservative their political thought.

  2. The second test included 38 University of Maine undergraduates who demonstrated that those who were multitasking (“under a heavier ‘cognitive load’”) were more likely to endorse conservative positions than their peers who weren’t doing two things at once.

  3. They tested two groups of people, divided between those who were required to give immediate answers and those who were encouraged to take their time and be thoughtful. The time-pressured people leaned conservative when asked to give opinions on “law and order” and “authority.”

This is why many of us loved social psychology class in college. Love this stuff! So does this mean that the 40 percent of Americans who told Gallup that they think of themselves as conservatives (compared to 35 percent who see themselves as moderates and 21 percent who self-identify as liberal) would have changed their identities had they been explicitly encouraged to take their time when answering, asked to stop doing anything else they might have been doing so they could concentrate on the question, and put down that martini and swig a black coffee instead?

We plan to examine the liberal/conservative leanings of the Nonprofit Quarterly staff soon, starting with the inebriation test.—Rick Cohen