Cognition, conservatism, and “common sense”

If there is one phrase I would like for people to stop using, at least in approving tones, it’s “common sense”. What I’m sure is meant by the term, when used to praise someone’s rationality, is that someone exercising good “common sense” is making a decision based on good, clear thinking as opposed to convoluted and self-contradictory premises. The problem is that the world is often a complicated place that requires convoluted, or at least non-obvious thinking. Too often, “common sense” simply means adherence to stereotypes and cultural memes in the place of evidence-based reasoning. As I’ve said before, the moment that someone makes an appeal to “common sense” is the moment that I stop listening to them.

One of the things I have noticed is how frequently arguments based in “common sense” are used to defend positions based in conservative ideology. I lived in Ontario during the back-to-back reign of premier Mike Harris – an era known by the political monicker “the Common Sense Revolution”. Of course the idea of a conservative revolution boggles the mind, but we’ll deal with counter-intuitive political branding another time. What I remember is that these supposedly revolutionary ideas involves crippling cuts to the public sector (particularly nurses and teachers), expansion of the private sector and a poisonous political climate.

Now, it is entirely possible that, because of my own unabashed liberalism and the very human tendency toward confirmation bias, my association between political conservatism and arguments from “common sense” is merely my brain selectively pairing things I think are stupid. After all, I have heard people from all walks of life, my own liberal father included, talk about “common sense”. A new study, however, suggests that there may be some evidence to support my broad-brush generalization:

The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. (snip) Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.

The Claim

The authors designed 4 separate experiments to test the hypothesis that, when the brain is taxed by the need to deal with other stimuli, it solves problems in ways that are consistent with political conservatism. Their contention is that since conservatism is marked by acceptance of hierarchy, emphasis on personal responsibility, and investment in the preservation of the status quo, and that these attitudes have been shown to correlate with low-effort cognitive processing in the literature, that it should be possible to observe a relationship under experimental conditions.

Regular readers may be reminded of a similar study that we looked at a couple months back, where lower cognitive performance was associated with conservatism and racism; however, the Eidelman study’s hypothesis is subtly different. Rather than looking for patterns among those who were less cognitively agile, this study took a non-stratified sample of brains and burdened them with various tasks, in order to see what happens when ‘normal’ brains are stressed and must solve problems.

The Prediction

If the hypothesis is correct, people whose brains are trying to perform multiple tasks will demonstrate a preference for low-effort cognition (i.e., their brains won’t be able to do complex, nuanced processing and will instead rely on stereotype-based problem-solving – a.k.a. “common sense”). These low-effort pathways will be associated with an increased likelihood to respond favourably to conservative arguments rather than liberal ones.

The Test

In the first study, people leaving a bar were asked to respond to a political questionnaire in exchange for a blood alcohol content (BAC) test. The data were compared to see if there was an association between being drunk (arguably a taxing state for the conscious brain) and political conservatism.

In the second study, participants were asked to fill out a political affiliation questionnaire under one of two conditions. The experimental group filled out the questionnaire while being asked to identify a number of sounds being played into headphones. The control group was given no such distraction task.

In the third study, participants were asked to recall items from a list of ideas presented to them early in the experiment. The experimental group was time-limited, being presented with the words for 1.5 seconds. The control group had 4.0 seconds to respond.

In the final study, participants were asked to express their level of agreement with a number of political statements under different conditions. The experimental group was asked to give their immediate answer without second-guessing themselves. The control group was asked to take their time and consider each question carefully.

The Findings

The hypothesis, as explained in the abstract, was supported by findings from all four studies. In each case, when participants were under cognitive duress, they allied themselves more readily with conservative opinions.

A figure from the studyA figure from the study

A figure from the study

As you can see from the above tables, the taxing the brains of participants caused them to more closely affiliate with conservative ideology, whether that tax came in the form of distraction, time pressure, or the depth of thought each problem was given. Also, booze makes you more conservative (and yes, they measured to see if conservatives were more likely to get drunk).

The Conclusions

This study was particularly interesting because it confirms my suspicion that people are just people, and anyone can be talked into a bad idea (like conservatism) under the right conditions. It tessellates well with the Hodson/Busseri finding that lower cognitive ability leads to conservatism – after all, the easier it is to ‘max out’ a brain, the more likely a person is to reach for low-effort cognition. There are a number of questions left unanswered by this study; namely, why people whose brains are capable of complex, nuanced thought still adhere to conservative ideology. After all, these findings would suggest that smart people with ‘good brains’ are just too clever to be conservative. The truth is likely something far more complex than that – if I had to guess I’d think that your home environment, role models, and familiarity with ideological positions plays a large role in worldview formation as well as cognitive workload.

Science is not generally been kind to conservatives, and this paper is no exception to that trend. What these experiments strongly suggest is that the reason why arguments grounded in “common sense” are so popular within conservative circles is that they are easy to recall and ‘reason’ through. What steps we can take to move people away from relying on “common sense” as a problem-solving tool is very much an open question. That being said, whatever answers there are to this question, they will likely be complex and requiring of careful consideration. Conservatives are going to hate them.

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  1. says

    “…tessellates well with…” I like that turn of phrase. And yes it does snuggly fit or tessellate well with things we already understand. Such as social justification theory.

  2. Anri says

    If common sense was sufficient to navigate the world, we would never have had to invent science.

    Common sense tells us some things that are right, many things that are convinient, and a vast number of things that are wrong.

    “Common sense” is not a compliment.

  3. Interrobang says

    There’s no such thing as “common sense.” “Common” implies that either “sense” is abundant, or else it is something posessed by ordinary people, and neither of those things is true in the slightest. Having sense takes work, and most people just won’t do it.

    My relatives are always teasing me about how long it takes me to make decisions about anything. I think the vast difference in our political views has something to do with that…

  4. AKF says

    “Science is not generally been kind to conservatives, and this paper is no exception to that trend.”

    I am a social psychologist (phd candidate) and I do a little work in the political psychology realm. One thing that I caution people on when interpreting, what we call, negative findings towards conservatives, is that they don’t find it negative. In fact, they often (not always) consider the findings about liberals to be backing up their negative attitudes toward liberal thinking (e.g., “keep your change” “how’s that hopey changey stuff workin out for ya”). I think that, most of the time, the people that see the liberal bias in political psych are liberals.

    Jonathan Haidt gave a talk at our conference a couple years back making the argument that social psychology is too hostile to conservatives and the research is biased in that direction. Well, I think that conservatives would look at the research and probably agree (sometimes the wording can be a bit biased) with the findings. They just think that the way liberals think is worse. For example, they may think that the concept you, and the authors of the paper, are describing is the better way to think and that liberals are doing it wrong.

  5. Enkidum says

    But how can you not interpret the results of this study negatively? 4 experiments all showing people become more conservative when they’re not able to think clearly. Is there a positive spin one can put on that?

    Perhaps the field is biased, all fields are in one way or another. But I don’t see how you can agree with the findings and treat them as favourable to conservative thought.

    I suppose one thing you could do is point out that many experiments show that we make more accurate decisions under similar kinds of cognitive load – turning the conscious brain off is often useful, for at least some kinds of decisions. Is this the sort of thing you’re thinking about?

  6. says

    That’s certainly one interpretation, except that the multitude of ways in which overly-reductive thinking leads us to make really bad decisions (victim-blaming being highest among those) is well-documented. The thing about bias in research is that one has to explain it, not simply allege it. Yes, the authors of this study may be biased – how would that affect their results?

  7. baal says

    I was thinking that the “science hasn’t been good to conservatives” more broadly. Global Climate Change is an example. The conservative thinkers (being politically led) are convinced in the US that it’s all a hoax. The reality is that the changes predicted in the 80’s are happening and are even ahead of ‘schedule’. The changes aren’t neutral and will create negative harms to the people who are conservative.

    So conservative thought does a poor job of modeling reality and it leads to self-harming decisions.

  8. says

    Haha, I love this. I love that it won’t help argue against most conservatives, because if only plays into the “liberals think they’re better than us” thing.

    That said, we really should be looking at what the political surveying questions were, right? You know, how were the possible answers worded and so on. For all we know, maybe the liberal answers were just more confusing. (will try and look this up when I get to a real computer)

  9. Andrea says

    Bryan Fischer of AFA had a hilarious article in which he argued that the research indicated that the more honest you are about your position, the more likely you are to be say conservative things. Basically in vino veritas. So that’s how one ridiculous, bigoted, conservative person is spinning it.

  10. AKF says

    To be certain; I do not think that this type of cognition is a positive thing. I am as liberal and rational as they come. However, a conservative may not see this finding as “negative” toward themselves. I don’t think like a conservative, so I can’t explain how they can think it is positive. I can only speculate.

    For example, some people think that heuristic thinking (or stereotypical thinking) is more efficacious and statistically leads to less mistakes. Therefore, this is an “economically” viable why to think (atrocities be damned). Now, I don’t think this is correct (I am a humanist liberal), but there are certainly findings to suggest that this is so (Griffen & Kahneman, 2003; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). This can also leads to stereotyping, prejudice, sexism, religion etc. Which we do see in conservatives moreso than liberals.

    My main point was: if liberals and conservatives think differently (and this is the case: just read anything by Jost or Janoff-Bulman), then that thinking style should lead one to think that their thinking style is best and the others worse. Therefore, when we liberals see political psych research we think “oh, look. See conservatives are worse” (and they are, haha). However, they read it and think “oh, look. See conservatives are doing it right”. If they didn’t think this way and found it negative, they would then have massive amounts of dissonance.

    I hope that clears things up. BTW. Love your blog.

  11. says

    Except that we can look to the outcomes of different types of thinking to see what harm they cause. Unless one’s contention is that misogyny, racism, reductive victim-blaming, homophobia, etc. are good things (and I realize that is not your position), then it is not simply a difference of opinion. Even conservatives will accede that these are bad outcomes for society, even if they disagree on how to address them. While I understand that they may not see conservative thinking as bad, it is not a mere difference of opinion – it is measurably destructive.

    In the general case, I agree with you that perception of the utility of different forms of thinking will definitely skew how we interpret findings like this. However, when you look at each individual case I see a compelling, evidence-based argument for why high-effort cognition is superior to low-effort cognition when deciding social policy.

  12. Desert Son, OM says

    It occurs to me that this post and yesterday’s post about “benefit of the doubt” are closely related. Racist behaviors and reinforcements in the “benefit of the doubt” shield-wall are connected fairly intimately, I would argue, with The First Denominational Church of Common Sense.

    For an example, see the comment by the poster using the handle “‘…’says in yesterday’s post (round about comment #10):

    “Benefit of the doubt” is, essentially, the same thing as “presumption of innocence”. There’s a name for systems where the opposite presumption operates.

    No. “Benefit of the doubt” isn’t “presumption of innocence” (or “innocent until proven guilty”) in the context of the subject post. “Benefit of the doubt” has become a kind of short hand for “don’t have to look at an issue very closely to examine the multiple factors and multiple levels of factors that result in unequal treatment within a supposedly equal system.” Even worse, “benefit of the doubt” becomes short hand for “actively work against close scrutiny so as to avoid challenging implications that may emerge.”

    “Common sense” in today’s post seems to me a similar thing: it’s the shortcut around complexity in analysis and decision-making. In a sense, it’s the fallacy of argument form authority without a specific named referent, and as such it becomes a framework that can encourage confusing deflection tactics in “benefit of the doubt” with the procedural integrity of practice in “innocent until proven guilty.”

    (Which is not to suggest that such procedural practice is always and accurately fostered and executed.)

    As a postscript, I just flew in from Vancouver and boy are my arms tired! *sound effect*. Ian, it was great to meet you, thanks for the beer and conversation, hope you are well!

    Still learning,


  13. ... says

    While I understand that they may not see conservative thinking as bad, it is not a mere difference of opinion – it is measurably destructive.

    It’s certainly true to say that one can measure destructiveness of beliefs, and a great deal of what conservatives hold as true falls under that category, but just to puncture the feeling of self-congratulation here a bit, what you’re missing out is that a generic anti-intellectualism is not necessarily irrational.

    If one takes, say, the results of the American left’s belief (I say “American left” to distinguish it from Enlightenment, or true, liberalism) in non-interventionism and take a look at what they allowed to happen in Darfur. It was perfectly predictable that this would be the result. And before that, the same thing happened in Rwanda. Indeed, the yankee “left”‘s grovelling to Clinton in matters such as the Sudan bombing has had effects it’s hard to think about. Then there’s the fact of its association with an environmentalism that sabotages food aid and prevents the poorest of the earth from exploiting their natural energy resources. And so forth.

    There’s an even more basic point, from the history of the last hundred years: that was the century completely ravaged by the intellectuals, by those who expended lots of ‘high effort’ thought. The devastation they unleashed has no parallel in human history. That cannot be wished away.

    If one takes the history of the argument about evolution – a subject on which conservatives continue to make idiots of themselves – the case is nowhere near as clear cut as it seems. One learns that one of the things that motivated William Jennings Bryan was a fear of the political implications, and that many on the other side of the debate, were also strong supporters of eugenics. (A noted exception. Clarence Darrow, authored an essay on the subject that still pays much study). The destructive potential of the intellectuals simply cannot be overstated.

  14. Sal Bro says

    I agree with AKF here. My mother prides herself in her “black-and-white” (her words) thinking. Shades of grey are for liberals.

    Unless one’s contention is that misogyny, racism, reductive victim-blaming, homophobia, etc. are good things… Even conservatives will accede that these are bad outcomes for society

    Not true–a lot of conservatives are very clear about believing that women are the weaker sex, white people are God’s chosen race, sluts and sinner had it coming to them, and gays are going to hell. Another quote from my mother: “Tolerance is from the devil.”

  15. says

    Well, yes. Some people are just assholes, and there’s nothing to be done about that. I know some liberal assholes too, who are only too happy to reflexively assume the worst about everyone who disagrees with them. The truth is indeed on the left, but it’s not at the leftmost edge.

  16. AKF says

    Just a couple follow ups.

    -I don’t think these authors’, nor any other scientists’, research has a liberal bias. It may have a truth bias? However, I think some conscientious liberal scientists confuse it as a liberal bias, which I think is detrimental to, not only liberal causes, but the field as well. I am against this, but maybe we shouldn’t use the terms “liberal and conservative”.

    -I do believe that effortful cognition is better and leads to better outcomes and I don’t think it is a matter of opinion either. That, however, does not stop people from thinking subjectively about it.

    -I just meant to say that when people say that this type of research is negative towards conservatives they are typically liberals and they may not realize that conservatives don’t think these findings are negative (perhaps we should convince them). This is my main criticism of Haidt. I fear this because when people hear that this research has a “liberal” bias, they are less trusting of the science and that defeats the purpose.

    -I don’t think that conservatives are thinking about long-term negative effects (racism, sexism, etc) that result from their low effort way of thinking. That is exactly the problem with low effort cognition. Therefore, they do think this type of cognition is better.

  17. Kevin Alexander says

    The experiments support my long held contention that the phrase ‘conservative thought’ is an oxymoron.
    Conservatives don’t think, they FEEL. They go with their gut, they listen to their heart. They basically do what three and a half billions of years of evolution compels them to do. Then they use whatever brainpower they have to make up stories to rationalize it.

  18. says

    To me, what these findings tell me is that we are all susceptible to these kinds of thought processes when under duress. The trick is how to get ‘conservatives’ to engage in ‘liberal’ methods of thought. There are many intelligent conservatives who devote a lot of thought to their positions; it’s just that those positions are based on assumptions that are not supported by evidence and arrived at through low-effort thinking.

    Not everyone likes thinking about stuff. Without trying to be snarky here, it’s really tough for a lot of people.

  19. Kevin Alexander says

    “To me, what these findings tell me is that we are all susceptible to these kinds of thought processes when under duress. ”

    Yes. This is what worries me. The political shift to the right of the last thirty years or so I think comes from the stress of too many people elbowing each other on too small a planet.
    When threats seem ever closer there’s no time to think things through. So we revert to thinking that was formed in a time when we in small tribes really were in a life or death struggle with other little tribes.

    It’s just that with modern technology that doesn’t work any more. Unless we can find a way of expanding Peter Singer’s circle then we all lose. Conservative ‘thought’ rejects that idea outright.

  20. maddog1129 says

    Re: getting rid of the phrase “common sense” …

    IIRC it was in an early chapter of Rene Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” that he wrote something to the effect of: ” ‘Common sense’ must be that commodity in the most abundant supply in the world, because it is the only thing that no one thinks he needs more of than he already has.”

    Cracked me up.

  21. says

    “Not everyone likes thinking about stuff. Without trying to be snarky here, it’s really tough for a lot of people.”

    And we have to remember that we all have things that are kind of painful to think about, to mull over. Some are painful because they trigger, some are just too personal, and some are painful because we are missing a cognitive link to be able to parse them fully. Expecting people to care enough about the truth they are willing to wade in the chilly murky waters of uncertainty is kind of unreasonable. Not everyone is capable much less what I would call willing. Not to say we shouldn’t continue to try and influence people to think more. We definitely should. Just saying perhaps the effort should be ours to understand why people address topics with “go to information” or “common sense” as they like to call it.

  22. Sal Bro says

    This statement from their General Discussion:

    In a context where the components of conservatism we discussed are independent or not otherwise linked to political conservatism (e.g., if preference for hierarchy were linked to political liberalism), low-effort cognitive processing may not promote conservative ideology. The arrangement of what kinds of cognitions occur quickly and easily may be as culturally varied as the arrangements of political ideology by culture. (pp. 9-10)

    Some info about the demographics of their opponents, from either what they said directly (not much) or based on some assumptions I made.
    Study 1
    Location: “local New England bar” (Orono, ME?)
    Respondents: 71% male, >21 yrs old; if typical of Orono, ME = 94% white

    Study 2
    Location: Univ of Maine
    Respondents: 11% male, college age; if typical of Univ Maine = 97% white

    Study 3
    Location: Univ of Maine
    Respondents: 47% male, college age; if typical of Univ Maine = 97% white

    Study 4
    Location: Univ of Arkansas
    Respondents: 34% male, college age; if typical of University = 83% white, 5% black

    So, they had a decent mix of respondents by gender, but they’re mostly college-age white kids from the US. Among college-age white kids from the US, they’ve shown that low-effort cognitive processing tends to be politically conservative.

    I really wish they would have tried to find more racially diverse respondents to see if they’d reached the same conclusions. It’s easy to accept that predominantly white USians default to thinking that favors white people. Of course, there’s reason to believe that anyone within a culture that has historically favored white people would have a tendency to buy into thinking that favors white people, but I’d like to think their results wouldn’t have been as clearly cut if their respondents would have been more diverse.

  23. says

    Of course there’s the whole thing about how psychology is heavily biased toward WEIRD populations – White Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. You’d have to find a way to control for race, meaning you’d have to re-create these measures in populations from various backgrounds. What readings I have done on the subject suggest that if you can get black folks to forget about race entirely, they act more or less like liberal white folks (except with a much lower tendency to be ‘colour blind’, but there race is made salient so it’s hard to parse).

  24. karmakin says

    Well, remember that conservatism is by and large driven by the Just World fallacy, and as such things such as blaming the victim is a feature, not a bug.

  25. had3 says

    When I hear some one praising common sense, I point out that common sense tells us, when we look in the sky, that the sun and moon are the same size. It’s hard to be that wrong about something, and yet common sense leads to that conclusion.

  26. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    The ability to skew most anybody rightwards by cognitively “loading” them is worrying. If people don’t have much mental “breathing space” to think problems through, the low effort solutions offered to them are going to be more appealing.

    There is some way to spin this in a positive direction for conservatives so long as one does not focus on consequences. The idea of forceful, direct (‘manly?”)action does seem to appeal to many. Cutting the Gordian knot is going to be favoured by those who distrust eggheads and thinkers who take too long to act. I could never understand the appeal of Ronald Reagan. Now I can see it a bit better, given this study. This might also explain the alarming trend in the Republican party to seriously consider candidates who are frighteningly ignorant and appallingly stupid. In Canada the Conservative appeal for a majority “mandate” so it could get its way in parliament is also, I think an appeal for action rather than thought. The Conservative literature I see is almost always describing issues in black and white terms, with no appeal to thought or consideration.

    This study’s results might go some way to explain the continued, mistaken belief in the “conventional wisdom” in both Canada and the US that the Conservatives and Republicans are the parties of fiscal responsibility, despite their most recent turns in power running larger deficits than their more liberal counterparts. It’s just one of those “common sense” things that “everybody knows”.

  27. smrnda says

    On the expression ‘common sense’ I really find it a pretty annoying phrase. Part of the reason is that my education was in mathematics and theoretical computer science, an area where you’re really best of not trusting any ‘gut instincts’ and where there is no such thing as ‘common sense’ – everything has to be rigorously and meticulously proven and all facts must be explicitly stated without appeals to common knowledge or things being ‘obvious.’ In fact, using the word ‘obvious’ in a maths talk might get a book thrown at you.

    I note that when I hear an appeal to ‘common sense’ it’s usually someone loudly proclaiming their ignorance but in very different ways. Sometimes it’s basically stating that ‘we’d all be better if we just decided to accept stereotypes rather than think.’ Sometimes it’s ‘let’s accept the accepted wisdom of the past without any criticism, or let’s accept what we just feel has to be true regardless of a lack of evidence.’ Or else it’s more judging someone as being ‘stupid’ or ‘rude’ for just lacking some kind of culturally specific knowledge. I’ve heard people stereotype Asians as lacking in ‘common sense’ based on their behavior at post offices and the department of motor vehicles. None of the people making the assertion had ever traveled abroad so they can’t really know how confusing a foreign system of delivering mail or getting a driver’s license and car title might be.

    Another use is when someone thinks that people lack ‘common sense’ when it’s really just that the person lacks domain-specific knowledge that there’s no real reason why they should have. It’s like people who think that someone must be an idiot for not knowing what’s wrong with the car. It’s a problem of people assuming that their experiences are somehow uniform over the whole population.

    I wish there was better research on political conservatism – I’d like to see whether or not people who are ‘conservative’ tend to go with simplistic but incorrect explanations just since you can get a conclusion without as much thought.

    In my own experience, I’ve found that conservatives I’ve met just don’t think. Plus, a conservative can be on government aid and can still go on a rant about the evils of government dependency without noting the irony.

    I think conservatives might just be more susceptible to sloganeering and us-vs-them style propaganda.

  28. mynameischeese says

    I’m getting such a buzz of confirmation bias off this story. It’s also interesting to see how fluid people’s beliefs are. I’ve always thought that this must be the case with theism as well, that almost nobody believes it 100% of the time, but that they fluctuate between theism when they’re in the fox hole and doubt when things are going well. I was trying to talk Daniel Dennett into doing an experiment to test this once, but he wasn’t on board.

    “why people whose brains are capable of complex, nuanced thought still adhere to conservative ideology”

    Maybe because they are cynical, at the top of the pyramid and benefit from convincing other people to adhere to conservatice ideology?

  29. mynameischeese says

    I have some major issues with the WEIRD acronym, but I’m willing to bet that you do as well, seeing as how the W stands for “western” and I’ve already seen you on about how problematic that term is. And there’s a lot more that’s problematic with it, but I trust you can find the responses to the original article and decide for yourself.

  30. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    “Easy” answers, in the short term, save time. It’s like knowing that a nice home-cooked meal with fresh nutritious ingredients will be good for you, but after a busy day at work, one does not always having the time or inclination to expend the effort to do the actual cooking. Enter quick-fix junk food dinner; it fills the stomach without effort, and though in the long run a sustained diet of the stuff will kill you, it can be very satisfying.

  31. Sal Bro says

    Thanks for the link.

    between 2003 and 2007 undergrads made up 80 percent of study subjects in six top psychology journals

    That’s scary; I didn’t realize so much psychology research was still based on student subjects. According to research at Georgetown University, psychology majors are 74% female and 76% white. Those are pretty big sample limitations to be affecting such a large portion of psych research.

  32. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    Two .sig level aphorisms seem to me to be applicable:
    “common sense is neither”
    “common sense: so rare it’s practically a goddam superpower”

  33. Kevin Alexander says

    I like how ‘everybody knows’ that the conservatives are more concerned with the welfare of families.

    Just so long as it doesn’t involve actual welfare. Or a living wage. Or medical care. Or education. Or clean air and water. Or anything else that an actual family might dream of having.

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