Reality is what it is
Quick but important point of clarification...
Someone sent me this paper as a presumed example of bias or invalid research:
Eidelman, S., Crandall, C. S., Goodman, J. A., & Blanchar, J. C. (2012). Low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6), 808-820.
I don't see anything wrong with it. I think it's pretty good.
I should stress this: That a study finds something unfavorable about conservatives does not mean that it's invalid.
Reality is whatever it is. Our job is to go out and discover it. I would never expect conservatism to not be associated with anything unfavorable, and I hope you don't expect that either (and a lot of these "unfavorable" things won't be unfavorable in everyone's eyes. Read Phil Tetlock's work.)
Nor would I expect libertarian, liberal, or Rastafarian views to not correlate with any purportedly negative traits. Social science in our era is somewhat coarse, often about linear correlations between broad constructs like "conservatism" and "low-effort thought". (I don't want to imply that Eidelman and colleagues' research is "coarse" – they were very smart, used a variety of methods, and have better than average ecological validity. "Low-effort thought" seems too vague or broad to hang together as a cohesive construct, but the devil is in the details, and this could be Stage 1 of their research...)
What "low-effort thought" is is worth a lot of effortful thinking, by social psychologists, cognitive psychologists, philosophers, epistemologists, and bartenders. (So is the commensurability of the operationalization of low-effort thought across the four studies in this paper.) That it predicts conservatism may or may not be interesting, and may or may not have any implications for the wisdom of conservatism. (The cheeky conservative response to their Study 1, where blood alcohol level predicts conservative views is, inevitably, in vino veritas...) But again, reality it whatever it is. We can't just avert our eyes, or run from it. If, circa 2030, we have a large body of evidence that low-effort thought predicts conservatism, and we've sorted out what low-effort thought is to everyone's satisfaction, then that's just the reality. This is what science is for.
Also, please keep in mind that correlations between X and Y do not imply that all members of X are high in characteristic Y. As I say on my Media Tips page (Tip #5), a minority of a sample or group can drive significant effects (e.g. correlations), and often does.
For example, 40% of low-effort thinkers could have endorsed conservative views in their studies, while 25% of controls did, and that kind of difference could easily drive a positive correlation between low-effort thinking and conservative views – even though a majority of low-effort thinkers in the study did not endorse conservative views. I'm just making up those numbers to illustrate and simplify – I have no idea if their data reflects that pattern, and I'm not motivated to dig into their data, or people's data in general, despite recent events.
What's more, even when a majority of people in group X are high on trait Y, please keep in mind that correlations between X and Y say nothing about any individual, including yourself.
I also think people might be implicitly flipping the direction of the Eidelman, et al, studies such that being a conservative (X) implies that one is a "low-effort" thinker (Y) – I suspect that's how lots of laypeople will parse the title. They actually describe it as low-effort thought promoting conservative views, which is a subtle, but potentially very important distinction. (I encourage you to dig into the syllogistic fallacies that address some of the issues that can arise when we interpret findings and flip directions.) Keep in mind that these were experimental manipulations where they subjected people to cognitive load or time constraints, and found that they were subsequently more likely to endorse conservative views. Or they queried drinkers at a bar while also measuring their BAC (Study 1).
I think people are taking these findings personally, like they're being called low-effort thinkers. There's no need to assume that. And we should know, in advance, that scientists will occasionally discover links between one's political affiliations and unflattering things (or at least things that sound unflattering.) That's life.
In any case, this research looks perfectly valid. I'd worry a little bit about putting such a simple and suggestive title out there, especially in this environment when we know we have profound biases as a field with respect to conservatives, when we might want to work to restore our reputation. But the studies look clean to me. You can probably get the paper here if you don't have access to PSPB.
8/19/2014 03:15:30 am
8/19/2014 06:07:54 pm
Hi Barry -- There are some new developments. Haven't been totally ignored. I'll have more next week.
8/28/2014 09:52:43 am
Any progress or new information on this yet?
8/31/2014 11:59:23 pm
The concept behind the sentence you bold and underlined can't be emphasized often enough. Nice post.
Leave a Reply.
José L. Duarte
Social Psychology, Scientific Validity, and Research Methods.