Study: Problem-Solving Abilities Linked to Political Ideology


Liberals are more likely to solve problems with sudden insights or “Aha!” moments than conservatives, according to researchers from Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). On the other hand, conservatives are said to come up with solutions without specifically choosing between insight solutions or methodical and analytical process.

The study published online in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology on Feb. 16 explains that sudden insight unexpectedly occurs after being stuck with a problem for awhile. Meanwhile, methodical and analytical problem solving is a gradual approach toward solving a problem and knowing the steps toward solving that problem.

While both groups constructed an equal number of solutions through gradual, analytical thinking, lead author Carola Salvi asserts that liberals tended more than conservatives to use insight or “think outside the box” to solve problems. In other words, liberals are more likely to create solutions with an ‘Aha!’ moment while conservatives’ problem-solving approach did not have to prefer using one over the other.

The research team studied 130 randomly chosen students from Northwestern University. The team categorised the participants as either liberal or conservative and took their age and ethnicity into account.

ScienceDaily/igor / Fotolia

When solving short (non-political) verbal problems in an experiment, liberals were more likely than conservatives to achieve solutions with a sudden insight or “Aha!” Photo from ScienceDaily/igor/Fotolia

These participants were given a task known as the Compound Remote Associate (CRA) test, which can be solved through insight or analytic processes. In this test, three unrelated words are shown and the participant must think of a fourth word that is related to these three, such as in the example pine/crab/sauce, in which the answer is apple.

The data of the third group of students who scored “neutral” were not analysed. According to the study’s co-author, Jordan Grafman, these participants unconsciously choose an approach to solving problems, probably out of habit or predisposition.

Nevertheless, this study supports previous studies that showed liberals and conservatives think differently but this does not show that one group are better at solving problems than the other. This only shows the difference of problem-solving approaches of people from different political ideologies.

“Liberals have a less structured and more flexible cognitive style, according to those studies,” says Salvi. “Our research indicates that cognitive differences in people with different political orientations also are apparent in a task that some consider to be convergent thinking: finding a single solution to a problem.”




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