Although you’re in a tiny room with bland walls andsecondhand office furniture, Jen Wright asks you to pretend you’re at the zoo. Writeabout your visit, she says, and tell me what you see and do. You can writeanything, 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 havesix minutes to complete the task. Six … long … minutes. Six minutes to thinkabout anything, anything at all, except, well, you know.
Wright is not crazy. Or then again, maybe she is. Maybe weall are, or at least should be. She’s fond of paraphrasing contemporary psychiatristThomas Szasz, who claimed that insanity is a sane response to an insane world.
No matter her mental state, Wright is a psychology professorat the College of Charleston, and this past year she became intrigued by theunderlying moral differences found between liberals andconservatives: while conservatives utilize a whole range ofmoral intuitions in their moral judgments, liberals appear to mostly care aboutone 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 answera 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 instigatedturned conservatives into liberals. She found that when people’scognitive resources are depleted or distracted (by trying to avoidthinking about white bears, for example, or by having to count thenumber of high-pitched tones they hear while filling out the survey),they drop certain cognitive defenses and respond tomoral situations in a more liberal fashion. In other words, when someone mustdevote energy to other exercises, their answers on a subsequent moralfoundations questionnaire will be more liberal than if they had not been taskedwith the odd, brain-draining restriction.
But if that’s the case, wondered Wright, can liberals beturned into conservatives? During the spring 2011 semester, she intends to discoverthe answer, and she’s enlisting the help of her Honors College psychologystudents to get to the bottom of it. Her theory is that if liberals are made tofeel threatened, they’ll respond to moral situations in a much moreconservative fashion.
Time will tell if Wright is right, and if our moralreasoning can be so easily manipulated. Until then, don’t you dare think ofwhite 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.