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thorninmud's avatar

Could this explain the appeal of conservatism?

Asked by thorninmud (17252 points ) April 9th, 2012

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He describes two modes of thinking: a more intuitive mode that is fast and effortless, but that is structurally prone to a whole list of biases that will predictably lead it to incorrect conclusions in specific situations. The other mode is slower and more thoroughgoing, reasons the problem out, and can avoid the errors of the fast mode; but it is effort-full.

The book demonstrates how we prefer to use our fast mode, because most of the time it comes to serviceable conclusions (or at least ones that “sound right”) and it costs us little in terms of cognitive effort. But it also consistently leads us to the same kinds of errors. The fast mode is valuable, but it needs to be chaperoned, when possible, by the slow mode.

Then today I came across this study (full PDF here) that finds that conservative ideologies tend to be the kind of conclusions that the fast mode comes up with. The researchers prompted people for their political attitudes under circumstances that prevented them from using the slower, more thorough mode of thinking: (1) while alcohol impaired; (2) while engaged in other cognitive tasks; (3) while under time pressure; and (4) while using little mental effort.

All of these circumstances produced markedly more conservative responses than from subjects who were (1) sober; (2) not thinking about something else (3) given time for reflection; and (4) exerting mental effort.

Could it be, then, that conservative ideas appeal because they “sound right” on an intuitive level and don’t require a lot of cognitive work?

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17 Answers

Ron_C's avatar

Wow, you did some very good research. I read something similar about the conservative mind set. I’ll have to look it up. NUTS, now I have homework!!

GQ by the way.

wundayatta's avatar

It could well be that. Fewer highly educated people are conservative. Business people are more likely to be conservative, and in business, you often have to make “fly by the seat of your pants” decisions. Intuitively, this sounds right.

serenade's avatar

If you haven’t already, see Jonathan Haidt’s work on the subject. I think you’ll find it complementary what you’ve stumbled upon.

Blackberry's avatar

This isn’t an insult at all because I understand thew appeal, but just can’t subscribe to it. Being conservative is more about narrowing your focus. This is just a generalization, but being conservative is either about business and money, or protecting your “tribe”. In this case, the tribe is either conservatives, Americans, or American values.

Edit: So I somewhat agree. If you asked people questions, depending on how the question was structured, you could get many people to subscribe to conservative beliefs.

Bill1939's avatar

I suspect that the only one of the two “modes of thinking” is actually thinking. I think that the “fast mode” consists of images and their associated emotions that enable an immediate response to survival-linked circumstances. Evoking executive functions at the end of a sequence of other mental functions would require additional time.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@wundayatta “Intuitively, this sounds right.”

Bit of a problem there…

bkcunningham's avatar

Is this the “study” by Chris Mooney that was in Rolling Stone about how getting drunk makes you more conservative, @thorninmud? The study conducted outside a bar?

thorninmud's avatar

@bkcunningham Chris Mooney had nothing to do with this. There were four separate studies, looking at the four experimental conditions I described. The study that looked at the influence of alcohol impairment was indeed conducted outside a bar, yes. The subjects were given a 10 item survey, then they were tested for blood alcohol level.

The PDF I linked to above gives a full description of the methodologies used in the four studies if you want more detail.

thorninmud's avatar

@Bill1939 What Kahneman puts into the category of fast thinking involves heuristic thinking (kind of a “rule of thumb” approach) and substituting a simpler question for a more difficult one. They still qualify as “thinking”, I’d say, but they don’t deal with the issue in its full complexity.

We hear a version of this often when politicians say something like, “Every family who keeps a budget knows that you can’t spend more than you take in” as a way of justifying the need for a balanced federal budget. It’s simple, it’s intuitive, but it’s actually a substitution. It substitutes a simpler question (How does a family budget work?) for a much more complex question (How does the federal budget work?). That certainly makes the question more manageable, but it ends up answering the wrong question.

josie's avatar

Fast or slow thinking is irrelevent if, at the end of the process, you have a mental constuct that is not the same as external reality. All of this New Age nonsense is based on a premise that reality is whatever you make it. It isn’t . Reality is what it is, and you have to figure it out. Total bullshit.

6rant6's avatar

@josie Hm. I think you’re thinking real fast there.

josie's avatar

@6rant6 Assuming that everybody is thinking, meaning everybody is trying to discover the nature of extenal reality, the people who think fastest have an advantage. Somebody tried to make the point with the axiom “The early bird catches the worm:. :)

6rant6's avatar

@josie I’m not particularly a fan of “somebody.” And no, not all thinking is about discovering the nature of external reality. And I don’t think you can make the generalization that “that reality is whatever you make it,” is a view held by a significant portion of us.

And this took me __incredibly__ long to figure out.

thorninmud's avatar

Gosh, I wonder if the Nobel Committee will take back Kahneman’s 2002 prize in economics when they find out he’s full of New Age bullshit?

wundayatta's avatar

Look, if you’re a fast thinker, and you never bother to slow down to figure out if there is a good reason to believe what you believe or not, you’ll never know you’re wrong and you’ll never know that you could be doing things far more efficiently and effectively. A fast thinker will never understand where they go wrong, if they never slow down.

Of course, then they get an attitude and act like everyone else is stupid. Typical.

ETpro's avatar

@thorninmud The observation in the OP matches with my observations of the two camps and how thay approach solutions to problems.

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