Progressive bloggers delighted in the news that a study in Nature Neuroscience “proved” that liberals had better cognitive and analytical skills than conservatives. The lead author wrote that liberals “tend to be more sensitive and responsive to information,” which allowed them more flexibility in their thinking. They also supposedly tend to deal better with informational complexity and more open to change when provided with the necessary cues for it.
William Saletan had a look at the study, and at Slate, he rips the wide-ranging conclusions taken from very narrow experiments:
Let’s take the claims one by one.
1. Habitual ways of thinking. Here’s what the experiment actually entailed, according to the authors’ supplementary document:
[E]ither the letter “M” or “W” was presented in the center of a computer monitor screen. … Half of the participants were instructed to make a “Go” response when they saw “M” but to make no response when they saw “W”; the remaining participants completed a version in which “W” was the Go stimulus and “M” was the No–Go stimulus. … Responses were registered on a computer keyboard placed in the participants’ laps. … Participants received a two-minute break halfway through the task, which took approximately 15 minutes to complete.
Fifteen minutes is a habit? Tapping a keyboard is a way of thinking? Come on. You can make a case for conservative inflexibility, but not with this study. …
3. Complexity and ambiguity. Go back and look at the first word of the excerpt from the supplementary document. The word is either. Participants were shown an M or a W. No complexity, no ambiguity. You could argue that showing them a series of M’s and then surprising them with a W injects some complexity and ambiguity. But that complexity is crushed by the simplicity of the letter choice and the split-second deadline. As Amodio explained to the Sacramento Bee, “It’s too quick for you to think consciously about what you’re doing.” So, why did he impose such a brutal deadline? “It needs to be hard enough that people make a lot of errors,” he argued, since—in the Bee’s paraphrase of his remarks—”the errors are the most interesting thing to study.”
In other words, complexity and ambiguity weren’t tested; they were excluded. The study was designed to prevent them—and conscious thought in general—because, for the authors’ purposes, such lifelike complications would have made the results less interesting.
Once again, a study appears to have been used for purposes outside of its design, and meaning extrapolated from unconnected and pointless exercises. While choosing between M and W may make for an interesting cognitive exercise, it doesn’t follow that it has much application to conservatives, liberals, or independents. From Saletan’s description, it creates an antiseptic world where all change is good and indicative — and gives no indication whatsoever of its application to the real world.
The conservative case against this study is easy to make. Sure, we’re fonder of old ways than you are. That’s in our definition. Some of our people are obtuse; so are some of yours. If you studied the rest of us in real life, you’d find that while we second-guess the status quo less than you do, we second-guess putative reforms more than you do, so in terms of complexity, ambiguity, and critical thinking, it’s probably a wash. Also, our standard of “information” is a bit tougher than the blips and fads you fall for. Sometimes, these inclinations lead us astray. But over the long run, they’ve served us and society pretty well. It’s just that you notice all the times we were wrong and ignore all the times we were right.
In fact, that’s exactly what you’ve done in this study: You’ve manufactured a tiny world of letters, half-seconds, and button-pushing, so you can catch us in clear errors and keep out the part of life where our tendencies correct yours. And now you feel great about yourselves. Congratulations. You haven’t told us much about our way of thinking. But you’ve told us a lot about yours.
Exactly. And the fact that people used the specious applications of this study to political thought tells us even more about the value of these studies, and the mindset of the media that amplifies them.