Researchers discover conservatives tend to have better self-control than liberals

There is something quite shocking about a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized by the Los Angeles Times.  It’s not the conclusions, which are common sense (in the eyes of most conservatives, at least).  It is the fact that in this age of politicized academia and journalism, the research was conducted and then publicized in a forum accessible to the general public.  Deborah Netburn writes in the LAT, in an article eye-catchingly titled “Why conservatives might be better at dieting than liberals”:

In a paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say there is a link between political ideology and the ability to exert self-control.

In a series of three studies with more than 300 participants, the authors found that 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.

According to the findings, if you don’t believe much in the concept of free will and personal responsibility for outcomes, it turns out you are less apt to exercise self-control.  Not exactly a shock, except perhaps to liberals. 

"Conservatives tend to believe they had a greater control over their outcomes, and that was predicting how they did on the test," said Joshua Clarkson, a consumer psychologist at the University of Cincinnati and the lead author of the paper. 

The actual test for self-control was something called the Stroop Test, which:

... 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."

It turns out that the effects of political ideology on personal behavior have been largely ignored by social scientists, according to the study’s abstract:

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. This research addresses this unexplored gap.

I am not holding my breath waiting for a surge of funding to follow up on this path of breaking research.  Still, it would be interesting to have controlled experiments validating some other obvious truths, such as the effect of incentives (and their lack) on behavior.

When I was studying for my Ph.D. in sociology, there was a commonplace and bitterly ironic definition of the field bandied about by graduate students: “the painful and tedious explication of the obvious.”  All too often, that is pretty close to accurate.  But without replicable experimental research, all one is left with is stereotypes, and that is the justification for this sort of research.  Usually, given the prejudices that rule in the social sciences, experiments are deigned to show results congenial to liberals.  And that’s why this research is so shocking.