New research has uncovered a link between political ideology and differences in working memory function. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Emerging psychology research has begun to explore differences in the cognitive functioning of liberals versus conservatives. In a recent series of studies, researchers Buechner and colleagues propose that the two groups differ in terms of cognitive flexibility and that this contributes to differences in working memory functioning.
Buechner and team suggest that conservatives should be better at response inhibition, a task that involves the suppression of thoughts that are in conflict with existing information. They explain, “the traits that reinforce cognitive rigidity in conservatives (e.g., rule adherence, resistance to change) should promote response inhibition by facilitating persistence through suppression of conflicting stimuli.”
Liberals, on the other hand, should be superior at response updating, a task that requires the revision of mental representations in accordance with new information. The authors say, “the traits that reinforce cognitive flexibility in liberals (e.g., openness, adaptability) should promote response updating by facilitating adaptation through suppression of outdated information.”
Three separate studies were conducted to explore differences in response updating and inhibition among liberals and conservatives.
The first study involved 105 US undergraduate students who completed an inhibition of return task. Subjects focused on a target cue while ignoring a distractor that randomly presented on the screen. In the same study, a second sample of 96 US undergraduate students completed an updating task called the “keeping-track-task” which required them to continually update their mental representation of a target cue. All participants completed assessments of political ideology and the results were analyzed using linear regression. Consistent with the researchers’ hypothesis, conservatives performed better on the inhibition task and liberals performed better on the updating task.
Next, researchers conducted a second study to assess whether these performance differences might be due to differences in intelligence and religiosity. The authors express, “This possibility is important as liberals are more open to experience (Carney et al., 2008) and openness is linked to elevated intelligence (Ackerman & Heggestad, 1997). Relatedly, conservatives tend to be more religious (Feldman & Johnston, 2014), and religiosity is positively correlated with impulse regulation (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009).”
A total of 194 American and Canadian adults were randomly assigned to either an inhibition or updating task. This time, intelligence and religiosity were assessed in addition to political ideology. Results showed that, just as in Study 1, the conservatives showed superior response inhibiting, while the liberals showed better response updating. Statistical analysis showed that neither religiosity nor intelligence accounted for the relationship between ideology and task scores.
A final study looked at whether cognitive flexibility might instead explain the working memory differences that were found. A total of 207 American and Canadian adults were again randomly assigned to complete either an inhibition or an updating task. Subjects then completed a 12-item assessment of cognitive flexibility/rigidity which included the items “I can communicate an idea in many different ways” and “I avoid new and unusual situations.”
Unsurprisingly, conservatives displayed greater accuracy on the inhibition task, while liberals showed more accuracy on the updating task. As predicted, liberals showed more cognitive flexibility than conservatives. Furthermore, this mental flexibility predicted performance differences on the tasks and explained the association between political ideology and task performance.
The authors express that their findings provide evidence that political ideology is associated with differences in executive functioning, independent of factors typically important to task performance, such as intelligence and religiosity. They say, “these findings offer a unique perspective to consider the cognitive differences that delineate conservatism and liberalism and the impact of cognitive flexibility on executive functioning.”
The study, “Political Ideology and Executive Functioning: The Effect of Conservatism and Liberalism on Cognitive Flexibility and Working Memory Performance”, was authored by Bryan M. Buechner, Joshua J. Clarkson, Ashley S. Otto, Edward R. Hirt, and M. Cony Ho.