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Ask the Cougar

Lions, Tigers and (blank), Oh My!

Jen Wright, psychology professor

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Although you’re in a tiny room with bland walls and secondhand office furniture, Jen Wright asks you to pretend you’re at the zoo. Write about your visit, she says, and tell me what you see and do. You can write anything, but there’s just one catch:

“Whatever you do, don’t think about white bears.”

With that, Wright spins on her heels and walks out the room. The door closes behind her. You’re left alone with pencil and paper. You have six minutes to complete the task. Six … long … minutes. Six minutes to think about anything, anything at all, except, well, you know.

Wright is not crazy. Or then again, maybe she is. Maybe we all are, or at least should be. She’s fond of paraphrasing contemporary psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who claimed that insanity is a sane response to an insane world.

No matter her mental state, Wright is a psychology professor at the College of Charleston, and this past year she became intrigued by the underlying moral differences found between liberals and conservatives: while conservatives utilize a whole range of moral intuitions in their moral judgments, liberals appear to mostly care about one or two (harm and fairness).

Is this because liberals just don’t have those other intuitions, or because they are overriding them? She suspected the latter. To find out, she conducted an experiment, hypothesizing that if she distracted participants and exhausted their cognitive resources, she’d be able bypass that override, making the more liberal participants answer a moral survey in a more conservative fashion. Wright ran the tests, interpreted the results, and came to a shocking conclusion: She was dead wrong.

To Wright’s surprise, the mental distraction she instigated turned conservatives into liberals. She found that when people’s cognitive resources are depleted or distracted (by trying to avoid thinking about white bears, for example, or by having to count the number of high-pitched tones they hear while filling out the survey),they drop certain cognitive defenses and respond to moral situations in a more liberal fashion. In other words, when someone must devote energy to other exercises, their answers on a subsequent moral foundations questionnaire will be more liberal than if they had not been tasked with the odd, brain-draining restriction.

But if that’s the case, wondered Wright, can liberals be turned into conservatives? During the spring 2011 semester, she intends to discover the answer, and she’s enlisting the help of her Honors College psychology students to get to the bottom of it. Her theory is that if liberals are made to feel threatened, they’ll respond to moral situations in a much more conservative fashion.

Time will tell if Wright is right, and if our moral reasoning can be so easily manipulated. Until then, don’t you dare think of white bears, at least not until you put that pencil down.

To measure whether you are a conservative or a liberal, try the questionnaire Professor Wright uses in her research.

To discover your own morality, ethics and values, take questionnaires at www.yourmorals.org.