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Can Drinking Make You Conservative? (and Other Questions About the Political Brain)

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So, a group of political psychologists walks into a bar …

… and no, I’m not going to finish the joke. Enough of them have been told already (even in German) about a provocative study in the latest issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin – the conservatism-and-alcohol study.

Let’s get the record straight here: The researchers were actually outside the bar – a bar in New England – where they flagged down exiting patrons with quite the request: Would they get their blood alcohol level tested and fill out a short questionnaire on their political views? Eighty-five of them consented to share their level of agreement with statements like "Production and trade should be free of government interference" and "Ultimately, privately property should be abolished." Then came the breathalyzer.

When the scientists collated the results, it turned out that, on average, the higher the subject's blood alcohol level, the more likely he or she was to express conservative opinions. This was true of liberals and conservatives alike; both groups appeared to shift to the right. (Study here.)

Now, I already know what some people are thinking: This is what our scientists are up to now? This is what liberal academics are wasting time and money on?

People are going to joke and joke about this. Fair enough. But there's a larger point here that risks getting lost in all the hilarity. The study in question, while certainly not definitive, is actually pretty intriguing. For it suggests, in line with a large body of research that I survey in my new book The Republican Brain, that political ideology isn't really what we tend to think it is. It's not just about ideas and philosophies; it’s also about psychological traits and cognitive style – about how people think as much as what they think.

Let's back up: What the researchers (psychologists from the Universities of Arkansas, Kansas, and Wisconsin, Eau Claire) actually did was run four separate studies to test the idea that political conservatives tend to engage in different styles of thinking than do political liberals. In particular, they were testing the idea that conservatives are inclined towards quick thinking and directness – think George W. Bush and his all-knowing "gut" – whereas liberals favor nuance and complexity. 

In other words – so the argument goes – thinking like a liberal takes more effort, more focused concentration. (And this isn’t just another case of liberals being smug; this is serious research.) Consider, for example, the conservative belief that the unemployed are out of work mainly because they're lazy. It’s simple and easy – low effort – to make poverty the fault of the individual person, who failed to work hard and take responsibility for his or her actions. It's much harder and more complicated to consider the large array of situational and institutional factors that create poverty in our society, that make it difficult or impossible for poor people to get out of poverty – considerations that might point to the need for, say, safety nets, minimum-wage laws, welfare systems, progressive taxation, and so on.

Or consider how people think about the status quo. It's easy and natural to do things in the way they’ve always been done – to follow routines, default to existing systems, stick with the familiar, the tried-and-true. By contrast, it takes effort to contemplate changes, to model what their outcome is likely to be – to crunch the economics on the cost, to write a new law, or design a new constitution.

Or think about global warming. It's easy and, in a sense, natural to dismiss the reality of climate change whenever there’s a big snowstorm. ("See, it’s getting colder, not warmer!") It takes more effort to understand that climate is the statistical average of weather, to model the climate system and consider different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, and to try to craft policy that will stave off a future risk, while fully admitting there's some lingering uncertainty about how quickly and strongly it will manifest itself.

So, liberals, on this theory, gravitate towards more complex and nuanced ideas that require effort. But here's the twist: They do when they can afford to; related research suggests that liberals, if they're distracted or overwhelmed – that is, under what psychologists call "cognitive load" – tend to think much more like conservatives. And it follows that, as a prior study memorably put it, "It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal." 

Such is the hypothesis, at least; and that’s why it made sense to test it at a bar. Because if you want to shut down complex thinking, then alcohol is certainly your friend.

The eighty-five people in the current study are not, admittedly, a very large number – so the latest research should not be thought of as the last word on this. That being said, its conclusions are in line with previous findings; and the psychologists also ran several other related tests, finding that it wasn’t just alcohol consumption that shifted people to the political right. So did being under time pressure, being under cognitive load (once again), and simply considering of a variety of words in a cursory, rather than a careful and deliberative, fashion. So it’s important not to get too hung up on the booze angle; blood alcohol was really a proxy for something else.

Many liberals will be tempted to cite the latest research to argue that they’re in some way superior, while conservatives may feel insulted by this new assault from academics (who, they’re already convinced, are radical socialists). But in truth, neither interpretation seems to be the correct one. The real upshot, it seems to me, may be that conservatives have a built-in political and communications advantage, simply because human beings, in their busy lives, cannot be expected to be in "liberal" mode all the time, or even most of the time. Or as the study authors conclude: “Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural."

In other words, you could argue that liberals are really the outliers here. They’re the ones in the position of having to spin out complex, nuanced explanations for their views – explanations that, to much of the populace, feel like so much fancy-pants posturing. And while this may work for academia and wonkland, it can also get in the way of political effectiveness and leadership. 

No wonder another recent study finds that liberals, on average, drink more alcohol. Perhaps they just need to escape from their liberal brains sometimes. To me, that sounds pretty understandable.

Chris Mooney is author of the new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, which lays out the psychological differences between left and right and how these drive our divide over what’s true.

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