In exciting political/science news, science has shown that conservatives have greater self-control than their liberal peers. Woot! Go Conservatives! Except, despite the headline, the study seems to have shown nothing of the sort. It may have shown that conservatives show greater attention regulation and task persistence – which really is quite an interesting factoid in and of itself, but apparently that wasn’t enough for these researchers so they went with “self-control.”
So, how did they show this disparity in self-control? They did a meta-analysis of three studies.
Study 1 ostensibly shows the disparity of self-control using the Stroop test. Which sounds fancy, but is actually just the type of test you’ll find on Lumosity.1 The basic premise of Stroop testing is that subjects are presented with a word where they are required to name the color of ink the word is written in, versus shouting out what the word actually says is. Researchers measure impairment of the subjects’ reaction times and accuracy in saying the correct words if, say presented with color words whose ink color conflicts with the mean of the word itself.
Self-proclaimed conservatives responded faster with the same level of accuracy as those calling themselves liberals. So basically, they beat the spread?
How is this demonstrating self-control exactly? Seriously, we’re not quibbling with the results, it just makes no sense as a test that figures out who has more self-control in lay terms. But, apparently, it really is a thing that some psychologists believe indicates willpower.
Study 2 illustrated that those who have a stronger belief in the concept of free-will had a better response time (with the same level of accuracy) than those who believe that (ostensibly) their performance in a test situation is mediated by the socioeconomic system in which they live rather than their own free will – which, luckily, correlated with being self-confessed dirty pinko commies.
You may be asking yourself, how did they figure this out?
First they made the participants do the Stroop test from study 1. And then, they asked them about their feelings about free will. That’s right, the FAD-Plus scale discussed in the paper is a series of questions that you reflect on, and then answer using a scale of 1 – 5, where 1 = totally agree and 5 = totally disagree.
Example questions of the FAD-Plus:
1. I believe that the future has already been determined by fate.
[8 questions of the same basic genre]
10. Your genes determine your future
So… Again, how does this prove an abundance of self-control? It totally confirms the first test, that conservatives, who according to this scale tend to believe in the concept of free will, are in fact, able to answer the Stroop task faster without decreasing their accuracy. Sweet! But again, does this really measure anything your average person would consider to be self-control? This study really does hinge on us accepting at face-value the claim that this test indicates self-control.
And then we have this excellent gem from the authors:
“The findings of the prior studies [studies 1 & 2] provide consistent evidence that conservatives exhibit greater self control relative to liberals due to their enhanced endorsement of free will”2
So, where exactly in this study is the proof of cause and effect? Perhaps you could highlight it for us? Nowhere in those two studies is there any illustration of causation.
The third study may be where the scientists think they proved causation. Basically they told half the study participants that believing in free will results in greater self control. The other half were told that it has no impact. And then they were made to do anagrams. People who were told that free will results in greater self control, who were also self identified conservatives, spent longer on the task.
0.05 was the significant value, so this was a little bit significant, weighing in at .068 as the P-value. Of course this study was only 137 people, so if you assume they tested as two equal groups the results were significant across 68.5 people total, and of that number, let’s assume that they had a reasonably equal test pool of conservatives and liberals, so the results were significant across approximately 44 people?
We’re not sure what happened to self-identified conservatives who were told that free will has no relationship to self-control. But we do know that despite what researchers have said anecdotally, the study itself makes no mention of the effect reversing and illustrating that liberal deficits could be overcome by convincing the participant that belief in free will does impact self-control.
Either way, if this is your causation, we’re, shall we say, skeptical?
Correlating all of this in such a non-critical manner to self-control feels like a bit of a stretch, while the actual results are really interesting. Why would your political ideology have consequences for attention regulation and task persistence? That really is a damn interesting question.
You know, the people underwriting on public radio all the time pestering you to play their games that are purported to give your brain a workout but that have been shown to have less positive impact on cognition and problem solving than playing Portal 2 ↩
, , et. al., “The self-control consequences of political ideology”, PNAS 2015; published ahead of print, June 22, 2015 ↩