Liberals and Conservatives Have Quite Different Cognitive Styles, Psychology Study Finds

Both groups solved the same number of problems, but in different ways.

Both groups solved the same number of problems, but in different ways.

The way liberals and conservatives go about solving problems is quite different, a new study finds.

In tests of verbal problems, liberals tend to rely more on sudden insight, while conservatives rely more on analytic thinking.

Both groups, however, solved the same number of problems.

Dr Carola Salvi, who led the study, said:

“Liberals have a less structured and more flexible cognitive style, according to those studies.

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.


This view is consistent with similar results from other labs across behavioral, neuroscientific and genetic studies, which converge in showing that conservatives have more structured and persistent cognitive styles.”

The research involved students who were divided into three groups: conservative, liberal and neutral.

The people who scored neutral were excluded.

They had to answer problems from a classic problem-solving test.

Here is an example: what single word can be added to all of these three words ‘pine’, ‘crab’ and ‘sauce’ to produce a compound word or phrase?

I have put the answer right at the bottom of the post in case you want to try solving it yourself.

Professor Mark Beeman, another of the study’s authors, said:

“It’s not that there’s a different capacity to solve problems.

It’s more about which processes people end up engaging in to solve the problem.”

In life we need both analytical and insight-based approaches, Dr Salvi said:

“Liberals tended more than conservatives to use insight to solve verbal problems in which you have to ‘think outside the box’.

Everyday life presents us with a variety of scenarios where we are asked to solve problems analytically, others only with a spark of insight, most of them can be solved either way.

In this last case, liberals are more likely to achieve the solution with an ‘Aha!’ moment, whereas conservatives’ problem solving approach does not prefer one style or the other.”

** The answer is ‘apple’.

The study was published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (Salvi et al., 2016).

Politicians image from Shutterstock

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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