On Intuitive Conservatives and Reflective Liberals
How and why thinking styles are related to political beliefs
Posted May 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
What is your position if you pass the second person in a race? While “first place” immediately comes to mind for most of us, only some of us pause, reflect and realize this intuitive answer is incorrect.
By allowing us to distinguish between those who are more likely to rely on their intuitions and those who tend to rely on reflection, questions such as this illuminate why we are similar to or different from each other. As the dual-process model of mind posits (Evans & Stanovich, 2013), thinking style can substantially affect performance in tasks with objectively correct answers. What is perhaps even more impressive is recent research suggesting that thinking style can even predict your political beliefs.
Thinking styles underlie a wide variety of social attitudes and they may influence a multitude of everyday behaviors (Pennycook, Fugelsang, & Koehler, 2015). For example, more intuitive people are more likely to hold religious or paranormal beliefs and they are more likely to be persuaded by conspiracy theories and fake news (Bago, Pennycook, & Rand, 2020). In addition, reliance on reflection has been shown to correspond with moral values in surveys and cooperation behavior in economic games (for a review of the literature, see Isler & Yilmaz, 2019).
Here, we focus on a particularly interesting recent finding: reliance on intuitions is associated with right-wing political attitudes and conservative beliefs (for a review of the literature, see Alper, Yilmaz, & Saribay, 2020). Numerous studies have employed versions of the Cognitive Reflection Test (e.g., Frederick, 2005; Thomson & Oppenheimer, 2016), using questions such as the one about the race, to compare the thinking styles of conservatives and liberals. A meta-analysis of studies (Jost, Sterling, & Stern, 2018) suggests that liberals tend to be more reflective than conservatives, on average, based on these measures. This finding holds independent of differences in intelligence and religiosity, and it relates more to differences in social attitudes (such as towards abortion and gun control) than economic ones (such as towards free markets and social welfare) (Saribay & Yilmaz, 2017; Yilmaz & Saribay, 2016, 2017a, 2018). Nevertheless, these correlational studies cannot tell if and how thinking style and political ideology are causally linked. For this, we need experiments.
In one of the early experiments on the subject, Eidelman, Crandall, Goodman, and Blanchar (2012) found that participants who were primed to think intuitively were more likely to embrace right-wing political views as compared to a control condition. More recently, in a series of experiments by Yilmaz and Saribay (2017b, 2017c), those who were prompted to use reflection were more likely to adopt liberal attitudes. In a novel experimental setup, Zitek and Tiedens (2012) found conservative hierarchical distinctions to be cognitively easier to process—and therefore more intuitive—while Van Berkel, Crandall, Eidelman, and Blanchar (2015) found the liberal principle of equality to be difficult to comprehend—therefore requiring more reflection. Moving beyond correlations between thinking style and political ideology, these studies have suggested causal links between them. Accordingly, it seems that thinking intuitively vs. reflectively can indeed influence your political views. But why are conservatives more intuitive than liberals?
Although the “science jury” is still out on this question, accumulated evidence suggests various likely explanations. One approach is to suggest that everyone behaves intuitively and to study how conservatives and liberals differ in their intuitions. For example, while liberals may intuitively value change, others intuitively prefer to conserve the way things are and have “always” been (Yilmaz & Saribay, 2018). A second and more recent approach is to study cultural differences. In a meta-analytic study of more than 7,000 people from 30 different cultures, an overall negative correlation was found between reflective thinking and measures of social conservatism, including nationalism, support of hierarchies and religious values (Yilmaz & Alper, 2019). When the same dataset was compared from the lenses of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) and non-WEIRD cultures, however, it was seen that this relationship between ideology and thinking style was much stronger in WEIRD cultures such as the U.S. as compared to non-WEIRD ones such as Turkey.
These findings suggest that our ideological differences in part stem from cognitive processes (for a current comprehensive review, see Baron, 2020). Intuitive thinking seems to go hand in hand with social (but not economic) conservatism, and rather than being a universal phenomenon, this relationship seems specific to Western cultures. Large-scale representative surveys and cross-cultural experimental studies are needed to test the robustness and generalizability of these results. At least as a first approximation, the fundamentally different ways we think seem to affect not only our answers to brain teasers but also the way we organize our social worlds.
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