It's not correlation/causation (though less and less is, since science has learned that causation is now teaching us less and less about how to actually fix things) but some in the social fields are claiming there are biological truths to stereotypes about the left and right, like that progressives are self-indulgent and clueless on national issues while conservatives are fear-mongers with a fetish for exaggerated dangers.
Neither is overly true, of course but if you agree with one and not the other, it is obvious which you are. A group of political scientists and psychologists think they have helped with a recent study. They monitored physiological reactions and eye movements of study participants when shown pleasant and unpleasant images; the usual stuff, they measured skin conductance changes, which is basically a lie detector test and just as accurate. And they gathered cognitive data with eyetracking equipment that captured eye movements while combinations of unpleasant and pleasant photos appeared.
Conservatives reacted more strongly to unpleasant images, they fixated on those more quickly and looked longer, while liberals had stronger reactions to and looked longer at pleasant images. Conservatives reacted more to a crashed car while progressives reacted more to a bunny rabbit. Neither is bad, obviously, but certainly different.
"It's been said that conservatives and liberals don't see things in the same way," said Mike Dodd, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) assistant professor of psychology and the study's lead author. "These findings make that clear – quite literally."
Consistent with the stereotype that conservatives respond more to negative stimuli (they worry) while liberals respond more to positive stimuli (they hope) when it comes to politics itself, they found conservatives exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans while liberals had a stronger physiological response to Democrats than they did to images of the Republicans, obviously the former was likely negative and the latter positive, though there is no way to know for certain - the response was just stronger.
The conclusions the researchers draw are not as grounded; rather than showing that tolerances are why people pick parties, they try to say evolution is at the root, claiming political leanings are at least partial products of our biology, which goes to show you that political scientists and psychologists who don't understand biology should not invoke it, at least as cause and effect. But the new study's use of cognitive data regarding both positive and negative imagery adds to the understanding of how liberals and conservatives see and experience the world and that has value, even if the more broad conclusions are not evidence-based.
UNL professor of political science and psychology John Hibbing goes too far when he tries to play evolutionary psychologist, claiming the results might mean that those on the right are more attuned and attentive to aversive elements in life and are more naturally inclined to confront them, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, he said. That would mean humans are two distinct species, but only in America, so science readers should just ignore the conclusion woo and focus on the negative/positive responses they found in people already left or right and see where it can take us.
"When conservatives say that liberals are out of it and just don't get it, from this standpoint, that's true," Hibbing said. "And when liberals say 'What are (conservatives) so frightened of? Is the world really that dangerous?' Given what each side sees, what they pay attention to, what they physiologically experience – the answer is both sides are right."
Of course, there is a bright side to their claims about a biological imperative for political persuastion; anti-science people on the left who think vaccines cause autism and anti-science people on the right who think pollution is not bad for us can perhaps be a little easier on each other given these results. Instead of claiming those with opposite political views are uninformed or willfully ignorant, they can now claim physiological and cognitive differences. The other side is simply brain damaged.
If differences are biological, people have to be nicer to each other, right? No one picks on the mentally disabled. Front page image: 1funny.com
The study will be in a future issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
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