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Why the Right's Zombie Lie About Gas Prices Is Wrong But They'll Never Let it Die

The lie that Obama is responsible for high gas prices will become another un-killable "zombie lie" in our political discourse.

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“Liberals come from the land of experts,” Mooney told AlterNet. “Academia is sort of a natural environment for liberals because people are open-minded and they express themselves with complexity and nuance, which is in keeping with the liberal personality. In general, liberals have more experts and they like experts. And conservatives, by contrast, don't spend as much time in academia and have come to view experts with a default distrust. Which isn't to say that they won't find an expert who tells them that they're right, because they will.”

When real expertise clash with facile talking-points presented by Fox hosts or Rush Limbaugh, we think the former should rule the day. But partisanship tends to play out differently in conservatives and liberals. Mooney cites research on “authoritarian personality types” – notably by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt – which suggests that conservatives tend to have a “simpler, more rigid form of thinking where you draw firm boundaries between good and evil, friend and foe, with me or against me – it's black and white, authoritarian. And what he says – and what the authoritarianism research also suggests – is that conservatives are more likely to draw on tribes, and liberals are more likely to say, 'well, humanity is our tribe.'”

As soon as they do that, says Mooney, then “anything is believable of someone who you really view as the enemy.” When issues are viewed in these terms, we raise cognitive defenses against anything that might threaten our own. Mooney cites a number of studies that detail how people are capable of rejecting information that challenges their beliefs or seeing faulty information which confirms them as reliable – it's known as “motivated reasoning” and it's a means of staving off stressful cognitive dissonance.

“Everybody does it,” says Mooney, but while “it's hard to disentangle it from the selective exposure to information,” he notes that “there is some evidence that conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning, especially about politics,” than are liberals. In fact, a series of studies conducted in 2005 and 2006 found that when partisans are confronted with factual corrections to their erroneous beliefs, it makes them more, rather than less sure in those mistaken beliefs. Good information, it seems, is not a corrective, and this phenomenon has been observed to be significantly more common among political conservatives than liberals.

Finally – and this gets back to liberals' relative comfort with complexity – Mooney says “we have to emphasize the quick nature of conservative thinking and their suspicion of explanations that are convoluted or too detailed. Which is what you associate with experts who often qualify themselves and conservatives often view that as kind of gobbledy-gook and want the simple answer.”

A study published recently in  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin appears to confirm that view. Researchers found that “low-effort” thinking and snap judgements were associated with more conservative views. In one experiment, participants – both liberals and conservatives -- given alcohol were found to respond to questions more conservatively than when sober. In another, respondents were given limted time to work through an issue, and in a third, subjects were asked to examine “political terms in a cursory manner.” The authors concluded that, taken together, the “data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.”

“Conservatives,” says Mooney, “tend to like ideas that make sense in a way that doesn't require you to think things through much. So, we've got oil, why don't we use it? It's right there under the ground.” That oil is traded on a global market that's heavily influenced by speculation is not a simple “bumper-sticker” story.

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