Rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid.
Are liberals smarter than conservatives?
It looks that way, according to a study published this week in Nature Neuroscience. In a rapid response test—you press a button if you're given one signal, but not if you're given a different signal—the authors found that conservatives were "more likely to make errors of commission," whereas "stronger liberalism was correlated with greater accuracy." They concluded that "a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change."
Does this mean liberal brains are fitter? Apparently. "Liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty," the authors wrote. New York University, which helped fund the study, concluded, "Liberals are more likely than are conservatives to respond to cues signaling the need to change habitual responses." The study's lead author, NYU professor David Amodio, told London's Daily Telegraph that "liberals tended to be more sensitive and responsive to information that might conflict with their habitual way of thinking."
Habitual way of thinking. Informational complexity. Need to change. Those are sweeping terms. They imply that conservatives, on average, are adaptively weaker at thinking, not just button-pushing. And that implication has permeated the press. The Los Angeles Times told readers that the study "suggests that liberals are more adaptable than conservatives" and "might be better judges of the facts." Agence France Presse reported that conservatives in the study "were less flexible, refusing to deviate from old habits 'despite signals that this ... should be changed.' " The Guardian asserted, "Scientists have found that the brains of people calling themselves liberals are more able to handle conflicting and unexpected information."
These reports convey four interwoven claims. First, conservatives cling more inflexibly to old ways of thinking. Second, they're less responsive to information. Third, they're more obtuse to complexity and ambiguity. Fourth, they're less likely to change when the evidence says they should.
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.
2. Responsiveness to information. Again, let's consult the supplementary document:
Each trial began with a fixation point, presented for 500 ms. The target then appeared for 100 ms, followed by a blank screen. Participants were instructed to respond within 500 ms of target onset. A "Too slow!" warning message appeared after responses that exceeded this deadline, and "Incorrect" feedback was given after erroneous responses.
An "ms"—millisecond—is one-thousandth of a second. That means participants had one-tenth of a second to look at the letter and another four-tenths of a second to hit the button. One letter, one-tenth of a second. This is "information"?
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.