Study: People on the left and right use different cognitive systems to make moral judgments

New research from Australia suggests that political liberals and conservatives rely on different cognitive “systems” when making moral judgments.

The study was based on what is known as dual process theory, which has been popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. The theory proposes that two different systems can be used to process moral decisions: System 1, which is quick, intuitive and emotional, and System 2, which is slower, logical and deliberative.

“The original impetus for the research came from the student author on the paper – Dylan Lane. He has an interest in explaining how and why people ultimately become left-wing or right-wing in their views, opinions, etc,” explained Danielle Sulikowski of Charles Sturt University, the study’s corresponding author.

“Based on his reading of what we already knew about differences between liberals and conservatives, he managed to work out that it was possible that System 1 vs System 2 decision-making styles might explain a lot of those differences. And it turned out he was right.”

In the study, 124 adults completed a survey in which they were required to respond to a series of moral dilemmas. They had 30 seconds to decide which solution to the dilemma they thought was right.

Previous research has found that cognitive load can slow down System 2 but has little effect on System 1. So the researchers incorporated a task to induce cognitive load in some of the survey takers. Half of the participants were required to try to pay attention to scrolling numbers along the bottom of the screen and respond whenever they saw a ‘5’ as they completed each dilemma.

The researchers found that this second task slowed response times among liberals, but not conservatives. This was true even after controlling for differences in logical reasoning and general intelligence. In other words, it appeared liberals tended to rely on System 2 while conservatives relied on System 1.

“When it comes to emotionally charged, morally contentious decisions, people who self-identify as conservatives tend to make these decisions based on their emotive, intuitive responses to the scenario in question (their gut feelings), whereas those who identify as liberal tend to put gut-feelings aside and make decisions based on an attempt to reason logically and consciously about the scenario,” Sulikowski told PsyPost.

“This study only considered differences in decision-making styles in the context of moral dilemmas. It remains to be seen whether System 1 thinking (relying on intuition and gut-feelings) is more generally dominant in conservatives, and System 2 thinking (attempting to consciously reason about a situation) is more generally dominant in liberals, or whether this difference is actually restricted to the moral domain, and a different pattern might emerge if we examined decisions made under different circumstances.”

The study, “Bleeding-heart conservatives and hard-headed liberals: The dual processes of moral judgements“, was published in the September issue of Personality and Individual Differences.