In an article titled “The self-control consequences of political ideology,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 22, 2015, a team of social scientists discovered there is a link between political ideology and an individual’s belief in free will and his/her ability to exert self-control.
The authors of the paper (Joshua J. Clarkson, John R. Chambers, Edward R. Hirt, Ashley S. Otto, Frank R. Kardes, and Christopher Leone) are academics in psychology and marketing of the University of Cincinnati, St. Louis University, Indiana University and the University of Northern Florida. They write:
Surprisingly little is known about the self-control consequences of individuals’ political ideologies, given the centrality of political ideology to people’s self-identity and the vitality of self-control to human functioning…. 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….
According to Deborah Netburn of the Los Angeles Times, the researchers conducted a series of three studies with more than 300 participants. These are their findings:
- People who identify as conservative perform better on tests of self-control than those who identify as liberal regardless of race, socioeconomic status and gender.
- Participants’ performance on the tests was influenced by how much they believed in the idea of free will, which the researchers define as the belief that a person is largely responsible for his or her own outcomes.
- Conservatives are more likely to embrace the idea of free will. They overwhelmingly agreed with statements like “Strength of mind can always overcome the body’s desires” and “People can overcome any obstacles if they truly want to.” Joshua Clarkson, a consumer psychologist at the University of Cincinnati and the lead author of the paper, said, “Conservatives tend to believe they had a greater control over their outcomes, and that was predicting how they did on the test.”
To screen for self-control, Clarkson and his colleagues relied on the Stroop test that asks participants to look at a list of color words such as “red” or “blue” that are printed in mismatching color fonts. (Picture the word “orange” printed in green letters.) Volunteers were asked to read the words, ignoring the color of the font, which can be challenging. “If you see the word ‘red’ in blue type your mind wants to say ‘blue’ right away, but you have to suppress that,” Clarkson said. “That’s why it is a strong indicator of self regulation.”
The authors found that while both liberals and conservatives were able to accurately read the words, conservatives generally were able to do it faster than liberals, which indicates their greater self-control.
The researchers ran a similar test with a fake article that argued belief in free will is useful for self-control and can lead to better and increased effort. After reading that article, conservatives outperformed liberals once again on the test.
Clarkson said that the research team come from different places on the political spectrum, “We’ve got liberals, conservatives, libertarians and people who aren’t sure.” In spite of his own research’s findings, Clarkson weaseled out by demurring, “We are not saying that conservatives are better in general. We just think this study gives us a novel way to think about self-control.”
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