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New study finds conservatives are more decisive and confident in their judgments than liberals

According to a new research paper, conservatives are more decisive and more confident in their judgements than liberals are.

According to a new research paper published on March 1, political conservatives are more decisive and confident in their judgments than political liberals are. 

Their study was published on March 1 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In a series of 14 studies involving 4,575 participants, researchers Benjamin C. Ruisch and Chadly Stern also found that conservatives are more likely to make quick judgments based on their initial response.

Liberals, on the other hand, prefer to consider a broader range of responses before making a decision. And this, the researchers suggest, lowers their confidence levels.

Researchers have long been studying how confidence relates to the strength of people’s beliefs. More confident people, for example, tend to be more persuasive, and yet are also more resistant to persuasion. Likewise, they generally gather less information before making a decision, yet are more likely to vote in elections.

But until the present study, researchers had yet to examine whether differences in judgment and decision-making confidence are influenced by one’s political ideology (i.e. left or right).

Measuring decisiveness and confidence

To find out, Ruisch and Stern conducted 14 studies that included a total of 4,575 participants.

Many were recruited via Mechanical Turk, and others from research panels provided by the firm Qualtrics. A few hundred participants were pedestrians in a northeastern American university town. There were roughly equal numbers of men and women among the subjects, with an average age of about 30.

In each study, participants also filled in information about their political orientation. They rated themselves on a seven-point scale, ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. They also answered the question “How important is politics to you personally?”

The participants then answered questions designed to test various aspects of their confidence and decisiveness. The first study, for example, asked them to provide specific details about a friend’s house, their usual barbershop or salon, or a favorite restaurant. They then indicated their level of confidence in their answers.

Of course, it would be difficult if not impossible to check the correctness of their answers. But that was not the point; the goal was to assess the participants’ relative levels of confidence in their answers.

Conservatives more confident and decisive across all 14 studies

This first study found, as indeed all 14 studies in this research paper found, that the conservative participants felt more certain about the accuracy of their judgments.

And this relationship remained significant even after adjusting for demographic variables such as age, gender, education, race, and income. This, too, was also the case in all 14 studies.

Regardless of task difficulty, conservatives more decisive and confident

The other studies tested how confident and decisive the participants were across a wide range of tasks. For example, they had to estimate the number of dots presented on a computer screen, or recall as accurately as possible a pattern of colored squares on the screen.

The authors made a point of picking neutral tasks like these, rather than testing the “ability to distinguish a Rothko from a Mondrian” or knowledge of “NASCAR, hunting, or country music

Some tasks were easy, others were difficult. Yet the results were consistent: again and again, conservative respondents reported greater confidence in their responses.

Being decisive does not mean being correct

Importantly, in the tests that had an objectively correct answer, the conservative respondents were no more accurate than liberal respondents. “We found that liberals and conservatives generally possessed comparable degrees of accuracy,” the authors write.

One study allowed respondents to wager small sums of money on their answers. The researchers found that here, too, conservative respondents were more willing to bet on the accuracy of their answers, even though they were no more likely to have actually answered the questions correctly.

Conservatives and the “need for closure”

Several of the studies also asked respondents to respond to statements such as “When I am confronted with a problem, I’m dying to reach a solution very quickly,” and “I would rather make a decision quickly than sleep on it.” These items about decisiveness were taken from a larger scale known as the “need for closure” scale.

Ruisch and Stern found, as they had hypothesized, that conservatives were significantly more likely to agree with such statements.

One of the studies also found that, when given the option, conservative participants listed fewer alternative responses, and considered fewer possible options before making their decisions.

Understanding the decisive mind: “epistemic motivation”

Why do conservatives feel more confident in their judgments? And why do they tend to be more decisive? The researchers suggest that differences in “epistemic motivation” might explain the conservatism–confidence relationship. Past research, for example, has found that conservatives prefer more “order, structure, certainty, and closure in everyday life.”

Prior research has also found that conservatives tend to exhibit a greater “intolerance of ambiguity.”

These qualities, the authors surmise, lead conservatives to “prioritize quick and efficient judgments versus engaging in extensive deliberation.” And that, in turn, makes them more likely to stick with their initial judgments, “whereas liberals may be more inclined to consider a broader range of possible response options.”

In other words, ideology influences “basic epistemic motivations, such that conservatives place greater emphasis on making rapid judgments to resolve ambiguity.”

And these findings suggest that “conservatives might be more likely to anchor on an initial judgment that comes to mind, whereas liberals might be more inclined to question, and possibly change, an initial judgment before making a final decision”

Ideological extremity is not the cause

The researchers also found that “ideological extremity” did not play a role in the various confidence judgments.

That matters, because some past research has suggested that it is ideological extremity, rather than conservatism or liberalism, that leads to increased confidence and decisiveness.

In fact, the present authors write, the size of the relationship between extremity and confidence was nearly zero, and in some cases it was even negative. That means the extremists showed less, rather than more, confidence in their judgments.

In sum, the authors write, this research “documented the existence of broad ideological differences in judgment and decision-making confidence, finding that political conservatives exhibited greater confidence across a wide range of judgment domains.”

Moreover, they found, “conservatives exhibited a greater tendency to make quick and efficient decisions, which was associated with greater confidence.”

Liberals, on the other hand, “tended to consider a wider range of possible responses, which was associated with lower confidence.”


Paper: “The Confident Conservative: Ideological Differences in Judgment and Decision-Making Confidence”
Authors: Benjamin C. Ruisch and Chadly Stern
Published in: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
Publication date: March 1, 2021
DOI: 10.1037/xge0000898
Photo: by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash