Friday, September 4, 2015

Do conservatives have better self-control?

The research below says that they do and it may be true -- but the study claiming that has rightly been criticized as overgeneralized. See here.

What the study did was rather typical of laboratory psychology. An effect was examined in an extremely limited context and the resulting finding made the basis of vast generalizations.  This study used the Stroop test -- which asks people to name color words that are printed on coloured blocks.  The word "green" might be printed on a red block, for instance.  When people are asked to name the word, the clash of color and meaning does of course slow people down. And conservatives were less slowed down than liberals.

So what does it mean?  It's most incautious to guess.  Saying that it measures something as general as self-control is a pretty wild speculation that could only be supported by much further research.  It IS related to brain function but our understanding of brain function is still in its infancy so that tells us little.  It is however ipso facto a measure of mental speed and measures of mental speed have repeatedly been shown to correlate well with IQ.  So, unsurprisingly, some studies have found that Stroop performance correlates highly with both IQ and academic performance.  And various types of mental illness lead to very poor Stroop performance.

So does this have any implications for conservatives?  I think it has a most interesting implication in fact.  It shows that conservatives have greater academic potential than liberals.  Conservatives are not generally keen on academe as a career, seeing it as poorly paid, among other things, but they do actually have more potential for it. 

And that surprises me least of all. I had a double career. Like a good conservative, I made good money in business while also doing a heap of published academic research. And throughout my social science research career, I was rather dumbfounded by the poor quality of the psychological research by others that I encountered.  A very common fault was exactly the one mentioned above:  Overgeneralization.  Some effect would be demonstrated in the laboratory and vast claims made about what it meant.  The whole research field of mental rigidity is an example of that.  My papers  in that area can be read here.

The amusing outcome of that was that I had a lot of critiques published in the journals -- critiques in which I tore somebody else's research to shreds.  Journal editors HATE publishing critiques because it shows that their reviewing processes have fallen down.  But the points I made were so obviously right that I did in fact get about 50% of my critiques published! See here.

And almost all psychological researchers are Leftist so what I was critiquing was Leftist psychology.  So my experiences is certainly that Leftists make very poor academics.  And the recent revelations about the poor replicability of psychological research results is also a straw in the wind.  The Stroop test is right. Journal abstract below:

The self-control consequences of political ideology

Joshua J. Clarkson et al.


Evidence from three studies reveals a critical difference in self-control as a function of political ideology. Specifically, greater endorsement of political conservatism (versus liberalism) was associated with greater attention regulation and task persistence. Moreover, this relationship is shown to stem from varying beliefs in freewill; specifically, the association between political ideology and self-control is mediated by differences in the extent to which belief in freewill is endorsed, is independent of task performance or motivation, and is reversed when freewill is perceived to impede (rather than enhance) self-control. Collectively, these findings offer insight into the self-control consequences of political ideology by detailing conditions under which conservatives and liberals are better suited to engage in self-control and outlining the role of freewill beliefs in determining these conditions.

PNAS vol. 112 no. 27, 8250–8253

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