Why lefties lack self-control

For the left, the challenge is to avoid approaching problems as though we are passive targets for economic forces.

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It’s official: “Left-wingers can’t control themselves as well as conservatives.” It’s not the first headline like this published by the Daily Mail, but this time there’s proper scientific research to back it up. Psychologists have found that people who believe in free will are more likely to take responsibility for their actions, exercise self-control, persist with tasks and eventually become successful. And those people are more likely to be conservatives – not liberals.

This is uncomfortable for many on the left, who generally attribute lack of success in life more to social forces than to weakness of will. But if you look carefully at the source research, published in the US’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a credible progressive response to the conclusions begins to emerge.

The crux is that the researchers, led by Joshua J Clarkson of the University of Cincinnati, looked not only at belief in free will but belief about belief in free will. Do people think that believing in free will increases self-control, or diminishes it? Generally speaking, the former. If we take free will to be real then we are more likely to believe we can control our own destinies and focus more on what we can do rather than what we can’t. When matters are really in your power, you are more likely to succeed if you believe it.

There are circumstances where belief in free will might undermine self-control. If you are in a situation you can’t do much to change, having a strong belief in free will could make you frustrated, anxious or guilty, impeding your ability to guide your own actions. If this were true, it would show that belief in free will is no magic bullet for increasing a person’s sense of agency.

This fits what the researchers found when they looked at what happens when you manipulate beliefs about free will. Among a group told that it helped self-control, conservatives exhibited greater self-control than liberals. But when primed to think that belief in free will hindered selfcontrol, the tables turned.

It’s difficult to translate these somewhat complex findings to the world outside the lab, but they do at least suggest that the question of whether people are free to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or are victims of circumstance is far too simplistic. The correct answer contains a bit of both. Free will is not something we either do or don’t have. It’s an individual capacity that flourishes in the right social environment.

Conservatives say they believe in allowing people to be free but what they don’t understand is that allowing is not enough: unless society enables us to be free, we are not going to be able to control our destinies, however much we believe we have free will.

For the left, the challenge is to avoid approaching problems as though we are passive targets for economic forces. Instead, we should seek to organise the structures of society to create a world in which belief in the power of free will is justified and the right-wing fantasy that we can improve our lives by our own actions becomes reality.

This article appears in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap