Tendency to fear is strong political influence

Feb 05, 2013

It's no secret that fear is a mechanism often used in political campaigns to steer public opinion on hot-button issues like immigration and war. But not everyone is equally predisposed to be influenced by such a strategy, according to new research by Rose McDermott, professor of political science, and colleagues published in the American Journal of Political Science.

By examining the different ways that manifests itself in individuals and its correlation to political attitudes, the researchers found that people who have a greater genetic liability to experience higher levels of social fear tend to be more supportive of anti-immigration and pro-segregation policies. Thus far, research examining the link between fear and political attitudes has seldom accounted for trait-based fear, with transitory state-based fear being a more common focus area.

McDermott co-authored the study, titled "Fear as a Disposition and an : A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group ," with Peter K. Hatemi of Penn State University, and Lindon J. Eaves, Kenneth S. Kendler, and Michael C. Neale of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Using a large sample related individuals, including twins, siblings, and parents and children, the researchers first assessed individuals for their propensity for fear using standardized clinically administered interviews. Looking at subjects who were related to one another, the researchers were able to identify influences such as environment and personal experience and found that some individuals also possessed a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear. Such individuals are more prepared to experience fear in general at lower levels of threat or . Next, the researchers surveyed the sample for their attitudes toward out-groups—immigrants in this case—as well as toward segregation. Participants were also ranked on a liberal-conservative partisanship scale depending on how they self-reported their .

The research indicates a strong correlation between social fear and anti-immigration, pro-segregation attitudes. While those individuals with higher levels of social fear exhibited the strongest negative out-group attitudes, even the lowest amount of social phobia was related to substantially less positive out-group attitudes.

"It's not that conservative people are more fearful, it's that fearful people are more conservative. People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don't know, and things they don't understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security," McDermott said.

The researchers make clear, however, that genetics plays only part of the role in influencing political preferences. Education, they found, had an equally large influence on out-group attitudes, with more highly educated people displaying more supportive attitudes toward out-groups and education having a substantial mediating influence on the correlation between parental fear and child out-group attitudes.

"In this way, the definition of unfamiliar may shift across time and location based on experience and education, and a genetically informed fear disposition is hardly permanent or fixed," the researchers wrote.

McDermott said that while more research is needed to determine how various genetic, biological, and developmental pathways influence fear and what other factors might influence in concert with these forces, there are still several takeaways to the study, not least of which is how might be manipulated to affect some people more than others.

The study also highlights the role emotion plays in the political process.

"We can roll our eyes and get really frustrated at Congress for being paralyzed, but we're applying a rational perspective to it because we're detached. But we have to recognize that a lot of what's driving the paralysis and disagreement has to do with emotional factors that are not necessarily amenible to or easily shifted by rational arguments," McDermott said.

Explore further: World population likely to peak by 2070

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Politicians can use fear to manipulate the public

Mar 04, 2009

A new study in the American Journal of Political Science explores how and when politicians can use fear to manipulate the public into supporting policies they might otherwise oppose. Politicians' use of fear is more likely ...

Is political orientation transmitted genetically?

Feb 06, 2008

As reported in this week's issue of New Scientist magazine, research by Rice University professor of political science John Alford indicates that what is on one's mind about politics may be influenced by how people are wired ...

Political preferences play different role in dating, mating

Sep 19, 2011

New research suggests that individuals attempting to attract a mate often avoid advertising their political leanings. The findings, co-authored by political scientists Rose McDermott of Brown University, Casey A. Klofstad ...

What's fear got to do with it?

Jan 23, 2008

The education world is under more scrutiny than ever before. Reports, political platforms, test result comparisons, and various articles in newspapers and magazines all criticize a field that just a generation or so ago was ...

Recommended for you

World population likely to peak by 2070

19 hours ago

World population will likely peak at around 9.4 billion around 2070 and then decline to around 9 billion by 2100, according to new population projections from IIASA researchers, published in a new book, World Population and ...

Bullying in schools is still prevalent, national report says

20 hours ago

Despite a dramatic increase in public awareness and anti-bullying legislation nationwide, the prevalence of bullying is still one of the most pressing issues facing our nation's youth, according to a report by researchers ...

Study examines effects of credentialing, personalization

23 hours ago

Chris Gamrat, a doctoral student in learning, design and technology, recently had his study—completed alongside Heather Zimmerman, associate professor of education; Jaclyn Dudek, a doctoral student studying learning, design ...

Data indicate there is no immigration crisis

Oct 22, 2014

Is there an "immigration crisis" on the U.S.-Mexico border? Not according to an examination of historical immigration data, according to a new paper from Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tadchem
5 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2013
The thing to do is to examine the politicians who USE fear to motivate vorters, and whom they are motivating the voters to fear. I see a lot of fear being generated on both sides, each against the other side. The people I see resisting the fear appear to be generally disgusted with the rhetorical tactics of both parties.
Rhetoric and logic are both tools of persuasion, but they have opposed means. In particular, verity seems irrelevant to rhetoric.