Psychologists Turn Conservatives Into Liberals With One Strange Thought Experiment

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer


Studies have consistently shown that turning liberals into conservatives (at least temporarily) is surprisingly easy. All you need to do is scare them. 

For example, one group of experimenters asked students to think about their own death before taking tests designed to assess their political beliefs. Over several experiments, the researchers, from the University of Central Arkansas, found that when the participants had been asked to think about their own death they became more conservative, and had attitudes in line with their conservative classmates on issues from capital punishment and abortion, to rights for gay employees.


The theory goes that the liberal students became much more socially conservative than the control group (who thought about television) because thinking about their own death made them feel vulnerable.

“We believe that political conservatism has psychological properties that make it particularly appealing when vulnerability is dispositionally or situationally salient,” the researchers said, as reported by Research Digest.

“Moreover, defensive conservatism appears to be a general psychological response to vulnerability that is not necessarily strategically linked to the eliciting threats.”

Now researchers have discovered an easy way to do the reverse – turn conservatives into liberals. Psychologist John Bargh has written about experiments his team conducted in which he managed to turn conservatives liberal through another thought experiment.


It turns out the way to do this is to make them visualize themselves as Superman.

Just as taking off Clark Kent's glasses turned him into Superman, picturing yourself as Superman turns conservatives into people who care about the poor. Gareth Simpson / Flickr.

In John Bargh's book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do he writes that he and his team asked participants to picture themselves as Superman. They were asked to really picture what it would be like to be as invincible as Superman – Business Insider reports – where bullets, fire, and falling off a cliff wouldn't hurt them. The control group was asked to picture themselves merely having the ability to fly.

The participants were then asked to rate statements to assess their political beliefs. This time the experimenters found that it was conservatives' beliefs that shifted. They became – albeit briefly – more socially liberal than they were, whilst liberals' attitudes remained unchanged by the thought experiment.

The authors say that this is the first time experimental evidence has shown that making people feel safe can make them feel more liberal.


It is not known whether playing reruns of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on election day could swing an election, or what effect replacing Fox and Friends with Superman 3 would have on the attempted repeals of Obamacare.

[H/T: Business Insider]


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