Do liberals just think more?

One of my favorite social-psychological concepts since I first learned about it back in grad school from one of it’s creators (Richard Petty) is “need for cognition.”  This is the idea that people vary in how much they tend to enjoy and pursue the process of thinking.  I’ve never taken a version of the scale where I could see how I compare to the population, but I’ve always figured I must be near 99th percentile in this.

Christopher Ingraham has a nice piece in Wonkblog summarizing the evidence for how this concept may be related to political ideology (and therefore susceptibility to fake news).  And, yes, as you expected, it is liberals who are higher in need for cognition:

Psychologist John Jost [love his work on ideology, by the way] of New York University is one of the pioneering researchers in this realm. In a forthcoming book chapter, Jost and some colleagues analyze decades of research on political psychology and find that a number of personality traits are strongly correlated with conservatism. One in particular — a so-called “need for cognition” — speaks to why fake news creators have found a receptive audience among conservatives.

Need for cognition” is measured by assessing people’s agreement with statements like, “I find satisfaction in deliberating hard and for long hours” or “thinking is not my idea of fun.” A measurement of people’s affinity for critical thinking, in short.

Jost reviewed 40 studies on differences in this need for cognition between liberals and conservatives. Of those, 25 showed a “significant, negative” association between need for cognition and right-wing orientation. In all but three of the others, there was a similar negative association but it wasn’t statistically significant.

In other words, liberals were slightly more predisposed to think critically than conservatives. As Stefan Pfattheicher of Ulm University put it in an email to me, conservatives “are less reflective in information processing, especially when information is consistent with [their] own worldviews.”… [bold emphases mine]

Pfattheicher also found that individuals who identified as more conservative were more likely to be duped by nonsense than liberals…

Both Pfattheicher and Jost say that any cognitive differences aren’t necessarily about intelligence. “This seems to be more a matter of motivation to process information (or news) in a critical, reflective thinking style than the ability to do so,” Pfattheicher said in an email.

In other words, in Pfattheicher’s reading, conservatives may be perfectly able to do the kind of critical thinking and cognitive exploration that would lead them to be more skeptical of nonsense and fake news — they just choose not to, preferring instead to seek out information that allows them to make quick decisions that reinforce their existing views.

To be fair, Ingraham presents Dan Kahan’s take that there really isn’t any different in motivated reasoning between liberals and conservatives.  And I buy that, to a considerable degree; to engage in motivated reasoning is to be human. But, there seems plenty of evidence that on the more specific measure of need for cognition there really is a difference.  And liberals simply think more and more critically about politics.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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