Politically conservative individuals tend to have greater confidence in their judgments, while political liberals have a tendency to second guess themselves, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Several studies have found that differences in cognitive styles are related to differences in political orientation. But the new study, conducted by Benjamin C. Ruisch, a postdoctoral fellow at Leiden University, and Chadly Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, was the first to systematically examine differences in confidence.
“The idea came to us from a few different directions,” explained Ruisch. “First, it was a pattern that we were seeing in our data a lot. At the time, we were conducting research in which we were using different tasks from the judgment and decision-making literature — things like dot estimation, memory games, etc. — and we were consistently seeing this pattern emerging across a wide range of different tasks.”
“However, one of the things that really redoubled our interest in the topic was the 2016 presidential primaries — and, in particular, the divergent paths that were followed by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,” Ruisch said. “Although Bernie was seen as the more progressive candidate and had substantial grassroots support, liberals/Democrats ultimately nominated a more centrist candidate, Hillary Clinton. And one of their main reasons for doing so was a lack of confidence — namely, that they were uncertain that Sanders would ultimately be able to win the election.”
“Trump, conversely, followed a very different political path. Although he was openly opposed by many high-profile Republican leaders, he defied the polls to receive the Republican presidential nomination and, ultimately, win the presidency. His surprising political success, in no small part, was driven by the unwavering confidence of his supporters: Despite the apparently overwhelming odds, the opposition from Republican leadership, and the emergence of a number of political scandals, Trump’s support among American conservatives was, and remains, remarkably and unprecedentedly stable.”
“The more that we thought about it, the more that this liberal-conservative ‘confidence gap’ seemed as though it could explain a lot of what was happening on the US political stage,” Ruisch explained. “The potential implications for the political sphere in particular were a big part of what motivated our initial interest in this research question, as well as some of the follow-up work that we’re doing now.”
In 14 studies, which included 4,575 participants in total, the researchers found that conservative individuals tended to express greater confidence in their judgments and decisions compared to liberal individuals. This conservatism–confidence relationship was observed across a range of different tasks.
For example, in one study, the participants were asked to recall information from their everyday environment and report their confidence in their memories. In another study, the participants were asked to estimate the distance between themselves and various objects, and then report their confidence in their estimate. In yet another, the participants completed a color pattern memory task and were given the opportunity to place a small bet on their performance.
“Basically, regardless of what the task was, conservatives were more confident that they were answering correctly, and liberals were less so,” Ruisch told PsyPost. “Importantly, though, it was almost never the case that liberals and conservatives differed in the actual accuracy of their responses; they differed only in their subjective feelings that their responses were correct.”
The researchers also found that conservatives were more likely to agree with statements such as “When I am confronted with a problem, I’m dying to reach a solution very quickly,” and those who agreed with such statements tended to have more confidence in their decisions. Conservatives were also more likely to “seize and freeze” on an initial judgement and consider fewer alternative options compared to their liberal counterparts.
“Conservatives tend to ‘go with their gut’ and make quicker, more intuitive decisions,” Ruisch explained. “Because they spend less time agonizing about which response might be correct, they tend to feel more confident in the response that they ultimately select. Liberals, conversely, tend to consider a broader range of responses. Thinking of all the different answers that could be correct then leads them to feel less confident in the answer that they ultimately choose.”
“That said, though, these differences in deliberation versus intuition only appear to be part of the story. Our results suggest that there are other, yet-unidentified factors that also help give rise to these ideological differences in confidence. One factor that we’re currently examining is the degree to which a person is exposed to alternative viewpoints and differing opinions. There is some evidence that conservatives tend to live in more homogeneous communities, surrounded by people with similar backgrounds and life experiences.”
“Liberals, conversely, tend to come from more diverse backgrounds,” Ruisch continued. “We suspect that this might also play a role in shaping these ideological differences in confidence. If you’re generally surrounded by people who think the same way that you do, there may be less reason to doubt that the way you see the world is objectively correct. On the other hand, if you are consistently exposed to people whose views fundamentally differ from your own, you might be more likely to question whether your worldview is truly the objectively correct one.”
The findings have some practical implications as well.
“Our work doesn’t say anything about what the ‘right’ amount of confidence is, but there’s probably a sweet spot that is somewhere in between these two extremes. So, to liberals we might say: ‘Don’t overthink things.’ And to conservatives: ‘Sometimes you should distrust your gut,” Ruisch told PsyPost.
“For people whose job it is to motivate action among liberals and conservatives, these findings might also be worth bearing in mind. Liberals seem to kind of be ‘chronic second guessers,’ which can decrease their confidence that they hold the right answer. So to get liberals to act, you might need to undercut this baseline tendency towards extensive — and possibly excessive — deliberation.”
The study, “The Confident Conservative: Ideological Differences in Judgment and Decision-Making“, was published online August 13, 2020.