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Conservatives’ Politics of Fear a Biological Response

• January 23, 2012 • 2:42 PM

Researchers looking at how we fixate on threats uncover more evidence of a biological component to the red-blue divide.

The tone of this year’s Republican presidential primary (which now seems destined to last much longer than Mitt Romney had been planning) seems sort of, well, fearful. One after the other, these would-be presidents have warned of looming threats — war with Iran, economic collapse, class warfare, social disintegration, illegal immigration — and have sought to position themselves as the best candidate for the job of protecting America.

Their political advisers must understand a psychological phenomenon that researchers have been studying for some time now: conservatives appear to be motivated by fear in a way that liberals are not. An expanding body of research suggests that Republicans and Democrats differ on some fundamental level in how they respond to positive and negative stimuli. A new study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, adds even more evidence to the theory that these two groups quite literally see the world differently.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln showed people a series of photos — some endearing, some disgusting — and then measured their physiological and cognitive reactions. Conservatives, in keeping with past literature, reacted more strongly to the negative images, and liberals strongly to the positive ones.

The photos were plucked from the International Affective Picture System, a database containing hundreds of images that have been rated by a broad audience on dimensions such as how positive or negative, threatening or fearful they appear to people. The researchers presented some of the images to subjects and measured the response of liberals and conservatives using skin conductance, which captures the same physiological reaction you might have when your palms go suddenly sweaty in a stressful situation.

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They then presented subjects — now outfitted with eye-tracking equipment — with collages of four photos, one in each quadrant of a computer screen. The images were shown in positive and negative combinations, for example: a gruesome car accident, puppies, kittens and chocolate cake.

“I figured because conservatives reacted more strongly to negative things, they’d be more likely to avoid them,” said Mike Dodd, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author. “That ended up not being the case. They ended up locking onto them quicker and taking more time on them, which makes sense from a policy perspective. Oftentimes they end up confronting things that they think of as threats.”

In this experiment, the results are all relative. Liberals spent a good amount of time gawking at the car wrecks, too. Our evolution as human beings has programmed all of us to pay heightened attention to threatening or frightening stimuli. But conservatives were drawn to the negative images almost twice as fast as the liberals were. And they fixated there longer, too. This suggests that there exists not only a physiological difference, but also a cognitive one in how political partisans react to such pictures.

“Political scientists traditionally thought of opinions as being mostly environmental: you adopt your political views based on what you learn and on your experiences,” Dodd said. “But it’s very unlikely your base levels of cognition are going to change because of those types of experiences.”

All of which means that your politics may in some way be influenced by your biology.

“If we had only had this study, and if you asked me how strongly I thought biology was implicated in politics, I would not be willing to give any strong conclusion,” Dodd said. But there is all of that other research, done by some of these academics and others. “They are kind of pointing toward a common story of how there’s much more of a negative bias in conservatives and a positive one in liberals. That being said, our point of view this entire time has not been biological determinism; it’s not that biology is the only important thing. But it seems to make sense it’s clearly a piece of the puzzle.”

This is not a controversial idea in plenty of other contexts. Most of us can fathom that our biology plays a role in what types of foods we’re drawn to, why we pick the mates we do, or how we react in stressful situations. So why is it so hard to imagine that biology may play a role in our politics, too?

This revelation could be the best thing to happen to political discourse since cable news started diminishing it (at least in America). You have probably witnessed — or been party to — a heated political debate between strong partisans.

“You will often hear them make arguments that they feel are quite logical, and they don’t understand why this person they’re talking to also can’t take this logical argument and incorporate it into their belief system,” Dodd said. “Part of the suggestion here is that that might actually not be possible. You have these two groups, and we’re showing them the same things, the same images and collages, but the way they react to them and attend to them is quite a bit different. [That] means they just might be fundamentally experiencing the world in different ways. That can to a degree foster understanding.”

That is, unless you tell your mortal political enemy, “I don’t think you’re wrong — it’s just your biology that is.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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