This study, which apparently has been whipping up a bit of a storm in the US, sat participants in front of a computer screen and asked them to push a key every time they saw the letter M or (for half of them) the letter W on the screen. They would see a lot of the Ms or Ws in a row, thus obliging them to push the button repeatedly until they saw another letter flash up (which would be an “M” if they were supposed to be pushing the button for Ws and would be a W if they were supposed to be pushing the button for Ms) and had to stop themselves from pushing the button.
The results of the experiment, which asked participants to identify themselves as either conservative or liberal voters, found conservatives made statistically significantly more mistakes than liberals, as in about 10 per cent more. The experiment concluded that “a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change.”
And so, of course, a lot of inferences have been drawn about this in the media. Like that liberals are less stuck in their ways than conservatives and more mentally flexible. Like that conservatives’ brains are weaker when it comes to thinking about new ideas. Like that people who like people and vote left-of-centre are awesome and people who hate everyone except their sister-wife and/or their pile of cash are shite. Like maybe the people behind the test are a bunch of commies. The media has got it a bit wrong, of course, as we so sadly often do. The experiment was just a stepping stone to future research, really, and open to all the criticisms that any experiment is – small sample size, external factors interfering etc. etc.
But screw scientific accountability. I, for one, am taking a punt and saying we will look back on this experiment in ten years time as groundbreakingly significant. “Of course,” we shall say, “how could we ever have been so cynical about the results? Left-Wingers are smarter than Right-Wingers and we should have known it all along.” Four legs good, two legs bad etc. Then we will ring the bell for our Howard-voting butler and ask him to remind the Bush-loving cook that if she burns the dinner again you’ll throw it in her stupid, ignorant face.