As it does annually, Gallup recently conducted a poll asking Americans to identify their ideology. For the third year in a row, the results showed that nearly twice as many Americans identify themselves as “conservative” as opposed to “liberal.”
Liberal scholars have often tried to explain these results away by attacking the simplicity of conservative beliefs. The latest incarnation of this attack is that conservatism tends to be the natural position of someone who has not had “the time or energy to give a matter sufficient thought.”
This suggestion is based on a study from University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman. The study essentially tested the way that the ideologies of individuals were influenced by constraints such as time, alcohol impairment and distraction. The researcher’s main conclusion appears to be “that when effortful thought is disengaged, the first step people take tends to be in a conservative direction.”
The suggested implication of this conclusion is that much of conservatism’s support is based on individuals not really thinking things through.
Quite a few things are wrong with this explanation. First, the study does not really address the political ideologies of Americans. The Gallup survey was not conducted under similar constraints. Individuals who participate in that survey have had their whole lives to determine what ideology suits them, including many moments where “effortful thought” was required, and they were not disengaged. In addition to some serious concerns about methodology of the survey (the study was based on extremely low sample sizes and limited locations), this conclusion doesn’t necessarily fit the research.
The researchers seem to ignore other possible and more likely explanations for the results. That’s where the study becomes less about science and more about explaining away a fact that the researchers find inconvenient.
There is no actual evidence within the research that there is a lack of meaningful thought leading constrained individuals to lean toward more conservative positions. In fact, an explanation that is equally probable is that much of conservative ideology is based in common sense; therefore it takes much less effort for someone to arrive at that position.
Liberalism is rooted in the idea that others can make better decisions for an individual than they can make for themselves, and it often depends on deceptive rhetorical framing, extensive obfuscation of issues and selective facts to enforce that belief.
Therefore it would be a perfectly justifiable and at least equally fitting conclusion that when individuals are constrained – and therefore not influenced by the various outside framings on particular issues – they would revert to their natural position of applied common sense. This is just one possible conclusion that could have fit the research just as easily.
The study provides no definitive answers as to why so many Americans more identify themselves with a conservative ideology as opposed to a liberal one or why that is a more instinctive position for many. One thing that does seem to be certain is the researchers should be giving more “sufficient thought” to how their biases are constraining them from making proper conclusions.