There are a number of studies which demonstrate a critical link between endorsement of right-wing ideologies and poorer performance on cognitive tasks. This has led researchers to conclude that, broadly, individuals holding right-wing beliefs are less likely to think about political issues in complex ways. When motivation is discussed in such contexts, it is typically associated with a tendency to engage in selective attention and reasoning to sustain beliefs.

However, an alternative explanation for poorer cognitive performance by right-wing thinkers is that, rather than being less capable, such individuals are simply less motivated to perform well on cognitive tasks. This was the hypothesis tested by a team of German, Swiss and Danish researchers. The results of their study are published in Cognition.

Each of the 405 participants was measured for Need for Cognition (NfC)—a preferential reliance on analytic versus intuitive information processing, respectively associated with left-wing versus right-wing ideologies—and socio-cultural aspects of right-wing thinking, specifically right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). In a second study, motivation was manipulated by providing (or not) a monetary incentive for performance.

Finally, participants were given a series of questions known as the CRT, in which an “intuitive but wrong answer … come[s] quickly to mind.” For example: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Most respondents answer $0.10, although basic arithmetic shows it must be $0.05 ($0.05 + $1.05 = $1.10). The CRT can be used as a fairly reliable measure of one’s willingness to “reflect on an intuitively appealing answer, which is a core element of analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking.”

The results of both studies confirm the hypothesis that at least some difference in performance on cognitive tasks between left-wing and right-wing participants is due to motivation. Specifically, performance in the CRT was negatively correlated with RWA and positively correlated with NfC. Furthermore, monetary incentive improved performance on the CRT for high-RWA individuals (right), but not for low-RWA individuals.

While the present study demonstrates that motivation plays a role in cognitive performance differences, more research will be needed to understand why and in what contexts. The authors offer a few theoretical explanations, including the fact that critical thinking may be viewed negatively by right-wing individuals (due to group loyalty and respect for authority), or the theory that blunting one’s cognition presents a strategic advantage if one’s goal is to avoid information and thinking that threatens one’s worldview.

Despite some limitations (for example, the authors had difficulty measuring motivation using self-reporting, and post-hoc motivation related to neither task performance nor RWA), the present study demonstrates the need to nuance our understanding of how political ideologies interact with cognition, and not immediately conclude that poor performance is directly related to poorer cognition.

The study, “The role of motivation in the association of political ideology with cognitive performance“, was authored by Axel M. Burger, Stefan Pfattheicher, and Melissa Jauch.