Liberal/Conservative – More data supporting intuitive, System 1 thinking vs analytical, System 2

Thinking RFID

Study: Oh Yes, We Can Change Conservative Minds
[Via Crooks and Liars]

This is something many of us have been saying for a while. A substantial number of Americans hold both conservative and progressive views, and this study indicates that yes, we can change people’s minds — and votes:

Political conservatives in the United States are somewhat like East Asians in the way they think, categorize and perceive. Liberals in the U.S. could be categorized as extreme Americans in thought, categorization and perception. That is the gist of a new University of Virginia cultural psychology study, published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Additionally, the study indicates that thought styles – whether analytical or holistic – can be changed through training, enough so to temporarily change political thought and the way a person might vote.

“We found in our study that liberals and conservatives think as if they were from completely different cultures – almost as different as East and West,” said study leader Thomas Talhelm, a U.Va. doctoral candidate in cultural psychology. “Liberals and conservatives categorize and perceive things differently, just as East Asians and Westerners look differently at the world.”

According to Talhelm, political conservatives in the United States, generally, and East Asians, particularly, are intuitive or “holistic” thinkers, while Westerners, generally, and American liberals, in particular, are more analytical thinkers.


Liberals and conservatives see the world differently and think differently, even across cultures.

Daniel Kahneman has discussed these sorts of thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast is required for making quick decisions needed to survive a threatening environment. It is rules-based, intuitive. But also unable to easily deal with complex systems.

Slow requires deeper analysis, taking more time and energy. It is not something that works well when the tiger is in front of you but absolutely required for dealing with complex systems.

Fast is best for dealing with a dangerous world, but can fall apart when the cultural environment is changing rapidly. Old rules may no longer work.

Slower thinking is better for understanding how to deal with a changing environment  But takes much more time to discern the best new rules.

Humans can use either but seem to naturally default to a specific type.

Here we find that supposed political attitudes fall under this, with conservatives being more rules-based, intutiove and users of fast thinking.while liberals are more analytical using System 2.

Now, the study indicates that what we call politics is malleable, which makes sense since what is called a conservative or liberal based on political views changes with time.

They discovered that if they trained holistic thinkers to think analytically, for example, to match scarf with mitten, they would subsequently start viewing the world more liberally (though not on economic policy). Likewise, liberals, if trained to think holistically, would come to form more conservative opinions.

It does support something that people have connected with conservatives and liberals – conservatives generally see the world as a dangerous place, one to be fearful of. Liberals… not so much.

Someone who sees the world as extremely dangerous would use fast, intuitive, System 1 thinking a lot. It would be a survival trait.

But, given the correct approaches, people can be provided the support for using System 2 thinking. And when they do, they see the world as less dangerous, drop into analytical thinking and act more liberally in their actions.

It does not change their views on economic issues but does seem to change their views on social ones.

Which is very hopeful as we emerge into a new era of organizing ourselves to fit the new cultural environment we have created.

In a few years, we will have discovered which rules to maintain and which news ones are useful and settle back into a more stable set of social organizations.

3 thoughts on “Liberal/Conservative – More data supporting intuitive, System 1 thinking vs analytical, System 2

  1. I apologize in advance for the lengthy reply. Here’s an observation I’ve made repeatedly over a number of years with both progressive voters and conservative voters. Generally speaking, people who indicate that they vote predominantly for Democrats are happy to identify the outcomes they want the political system to provide. For example, it is perfectly possible for most progressive voters to state that they would like to simultaneously see greater access to birth control (including pregnancy termination options) AND lower rates of abortion. Similarly, progressive voters are capable of simultaneously wanting both fewer people on welfare roles AND better support for the people who do need government support. They are therefore generally open to a variety of means to achieve these ends – better education, job training, redistribution of revenues, policies that ensure for a more equal playing field and so forth. Most of the progressive voters I’ve spoken with don’t necessarily care which party brings about the effects they desire.
    When President Clinton was able to both protect and enhance birth control and reproductive education options While Simultaneously overseeing a drop in abortion rates; and was also successful in implementing policies that continued to support welfare safety nets while seeing increased numbers of people come off welfare, progressives were happy, and, I strongly suspect, if a Republican were able to create similar win-win outcomes, most progressives would be happy with those outcomes.
    One might have thought that with abortion rates declining and welfare roles shrinking under Clinton, conservatives would have been happy with those aspects of the Clinton presidency.
    But they weren’t happy. Conservatives, generally, do not think in terms of big picture outcomes; and they Hate it when they perceive that “the other side” scored a point. In the first place, many conservatives will not state or commit to describing what big-picture outcomes they want. In many examples, conservatives don’t appear to care about the outcome per se. What they want is a very narrowly-defined illusion of control over whomever among their citizens they dislike or disagree with. They don’t necessarily want fewer abortions, They want a Law limiting access to birth control, limiting reproductive education, and making abortion illegal For the Groups of People They Dislike, and even if that law had the unintended consequence of actually increasing overall numbers of abortions, they’d be happy. Similarly, they don’t seem to care about numbers of people (or corporations) on welfare per se or even how much that costs taxpayers. What they want is a Law targeting the welfare recipients whom they dislike. Doesn’t matter if the law is effective, ineffective or counterproductive. Conservatives like simple, simplistic laws, and the more those laws specifically target people and groups they especially dislike, the happier they seem to be.
    And the laws Must be put into place by people on “their side.”
    Anyone wishing to read a brilliant essay describing to a T the manner in which the conservative mind works will find value in George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism. You can google it or find it here:
    Written 70 years ago in England, it could have been written yesterday in America.

    1. To a large extent, most conservatives want hierarchical authorities to deal with things. A hallmark of how human hierarchies evolved is seeing everything as a binary decision – black/white, right/wrong. Not to say liberals cannot be hierarchical but theirs takes a different form.

      Conservative do not trust anything outside the hierarchy they acknowledge. And many distributed approaches seem like magic to them. But the ability for these approaches to move large amounts of information around make distributed democracies especially efficient and adaptive.

      It is ironic to me that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street both originally arose to deal with the same problem – out if control bankers. The Tea Party looked for hierarchical authorities to take care of things while OWS used distributed democratic approaches.

      And each failed due to the weakness of the approach. The Tea Party got hijacked by the same authorities it was fighting against and OWS had a lot of ideas but little action.

      If anyone could have found balance and United the action-driven hierarchies of the Tea Party with the wise-solutions of OWS, some big things might have been done.

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