Left, Right; Obama, McCain: It may not be what you think

September 18, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Why does it seem many people begin with political preferences and then try to find reasons justifying their inclinations? Why is it so difficult to sway people who care deeply about politics no matter how compelling the facts or persuasive the prose? University of Nebraska-Lincoln research may help to answer these questions.

By monitoring people's physical sensitivities to things like sudden noises and threatening visual images, political scientists were able to conclude that physiological reactions help predict variations in political beliefs.

For the first time, political scientists show that people who are physiologically highly responsive to threat are likely to advocate policies that protect against threats to the social unit: favoring defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War. In contrast, people who are less startled by sudden noises and threatening visual images are more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control.

Researchers report their discovery in the Sept. 19 issue of the weekly international journal Science. Authors are UNL political science professors John Hibbing and Kevin Smith, UNL psychology professor Mario Scalora, Rice University political science professor John Alford, Virginia Commonwealth University postdoctoral fellow Peter Hatemi, and graduate students Doug Oxley and Jennifer Miller, of UNL, and Matthew Hibbing at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

"What the findings suggest is a different view of the nature of political beliefs than the common understanding that political attitudes are exclusively the result of experiences and the environment," said John Hibbing.

Hibbing's team used physiological testing: skin conductance and eye movement sensors, to assess the body's biological reaction to threatening stimuli. Testing with these psychophysiological procedures is quite unusual in political science, he said.

This study involved a group of 46 people who admitted to caring about political issues. Researchers showed participants threatening visual images -- pictures of a very large spider on a person's face, a dazed person with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it -- and their skin was monitored for electrical conductivity. Hibbing said skin conductance tests indicate emotion, arousal and attention. By using the skin conductance tests, the researchers are able to track a person's reactions to the threatening stimuli.

In another physiological measure, scientists tested the "orbicularis oculi startle blink response" to record the amplitude or intensity of blinks. They surprised subjects with a sudden, jarring noise and measured how hard they blinked in response to being startled.

Researchers compared participants' reactions to the physical testing with their self-reported political attitudes on protective policies. They concluded that participants most disturbed by the threatening stimuli or by loud noises were also most likely to advocate socially protective policy positions.

"Now we can show that certain important political beliefs have a very deep basis," Hibbing said. "We don't know for certain that it's genetic but we do know that there's a predilection biologically that leads some people to experience the world differently from others. The relationships we found are far from deterministic -- environmental events still play a vital role -- but the fact that physical reactions to loud noises or to scary animals is at all predictive of political beliefs is remarkable."

"Should extreme interrogation techniques be used on foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities? Should the privacy of law-abiding citizens be sacrificed if doing so offers the potential for making the country safer? Our research suggests that the answers a person provides to questions such as these are in part traceable to how vividly they physically experience generic threats."

"And if political beliefs do run as deep as we suggest, it becomes easier to understand why political conflict is so persistent. It's not that those who disagree with us politically are being intentionally stubborn but rather that the world seems very different to them. Perhaps recognition of the deep physical nature of these differences will increase political tolerance and understanding," Hibbing concluded.

The study, which was supported by National Science Foundation grants, builds on Hibbing's and his colleague's earlier research examining the role of genetics in shaping people's political temperaments and attitudes. His upcoming research, also funded by NSF, will focus on testing the varying brain activation patterns induced by the presentation of threatening images and locating the physiological predictors of political apathy.

Provided by University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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4.2 / 5 (10) Sep 18, 2008
This doesn't prove that these attitudes (and reactions) are not exclusively environmental. Yes, I can believe that some people are biologically more reactive, but environmental programming works, and you can make someone more reactive (even physically) with environmental stimuli.

Why do you think the threat level was repeatedly raised during the election cycle? Why do you think the government (and the complicit media) works so hard to keep us "scared" of terrorist, criminal and biological (disease) threats?

The more scared someone is, the more open to suggestion they are.
2.9 / 5 (8) Sep 18, 2008
The test group was comprised of only the 46 people that agreed to participate in the test, possibly for the money. That's hardly a cross section of society. Then the "researchers" make a conclusion that those who reacted more to the stimuli did so solely because of the stimuli rather than, for example, the idea that the stimuli was presented in a very unique situation. That is, they presume the reaction of a typical human to a dead body in a morgue should be the same as the reaction to a dead body in a business office. This is not science.
2.1 / 5 (7) Sep 18, 2008
Although I disagree with x646d63's conspiracies, I have to say I agree with the premise. If a person supports a fear-mongering candidate and watches news channels that reinforce their political opinions, they're going to become more scared. If their favorite news anchors are telling them everything they know is under attack from all directions, I would expect them to be more jumpy.

I think the study was a good idea to begin with, but one has to wonder whether causation is being reversed here.

On a side note, since political and religious beliefs are typically inherited from parents, family members, and closer members of society, I would also expect to see some genetic correlations here. I don't see how you could prove genetic causation without pinpointing a specific gene.
2.7 / 5 (6) Sep 18, 2008
very credible theory.
1.9 / 5 (9) Sep 18, 2008
The biological reaction to threat comes from the brain, the mind. So what this says is that scaredy cats are likely to be republicans and brave folks are Democrats. Just about opposite of what one might expect considering the policies of the parties.
3 / 5 (6) Sep 18, 2008
Brainwashing from watching TV.
2 / 5 (4) Sep 19, 2008
I really don't want to disparage these researchers but I have to think they were blinded by their expectations of causal relationships in the results. One of the big topics of societal concern has been the desensitization of people to violence. Did they document which subjects had grown up playing Doom and Counterstrike? Which may be avid horror movie fanatics? I tend to think there may be a correlation with these things and whether the upbringing was in a conservative or liberal environment. At any rate, lots of unknowns here. Oh, and if conservatives feel more threatened by these things, why did they put gun control under the liberal category. Seems logical to me that if you are afraid of these stimuli and advocate socially protective policy positions, then gun control would certainly fit under "socially protective". This leads me to believe there might be a tad lack of political objectivism in this study.
2.8 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
The sample was too small. 46 highly political people can hardly be called representative of the whole.

Though it would be interesting to see more tests conducted on this type of behavior.
1.8 / 5 (6) Sep 19, 2008
"So what this says is that scaredy cats are likely to be republicans and brave folks are Democrats."

Besides the small and biased test group, the researchers also neglected to point out the parental instinct, often stronger than self protection, also manifests itself as a strong reaction to danger and the site of a person hurt or killed. Shall we call such people scaredy cats as well? Or shall we conclude that republicans have a stronger parental instinct? People that take such "research" as this seriously, need to review their science 101 notes.

3.4 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
I think anyone who has watched the O'Reilly Factor AND the Daily Show/ the Stephen Colbert Report, know that republicans blink their eyes more and seem to have more "ticks," or twitches, then democrats. Just watch the hosts as well as the republicans/democrats they interview. ;)
5 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
Jeez, people... chill out. Seems to me this was an exploratory study and the researchers have not suggested that their findings are conclusive of anything. What they did show, however, is that this is an interesting possibility that is worth further study (and will be further investigated).

For those of you claiming that this is not "science" or "serious research," take a pill. This is clearly a baby step. Methodology problems are common in initial research as well (often seen in hindsight). So the next study is larger, more focused, etc. If you read the article to the end, you would see that this study builds on prior research and will help with subsequent research.

The potential here is evident. Give it time.
1 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
RFC my complaint is not that the experiment should not have been done. Perhaps I didn't make that clear in my previous comment. Its that there is severe bias in a small data set (a very filtered group of only 46 people) and that the article makes no effort to imply the response to the stimuli is anything other than unthinking fear/cowardice (the proof is in the comments that also "conclude" that from the article) rather than, say, anger at the researchers for pulling a cheap stunt, empathy for the dead, or a parental protection instinct (which, I assure you, are EXACTLY what I would feel--I'm a pretty emotional guy that way). Finally, let it be known I'm not a republican, I will not be voting for McCain, and I am more disgusted with Bush on many matters than I was with Bill Clinton (but not all matters). I say this so people don't presume I've defended republicans here solely for my agenda.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 19, 2008
Jeez, people... chill out.

You are a rational, logical, reasonable person. No one wants you here. Go away. :-)
2.4 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
I think they lost me at broad generalizations of 'right' and 'left'. Do they mean classically conservative or neo-conservative? Liberal or green? Where might libertarians fit in? There are simply too many stances to generalize in this way without serious qualifications. If they move forward to make those distinctions, then bravo, but I have my doubts.
2.5 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2008
Last time I looked, and throughout American history, both parties used fear in equal measure -- though the things to be feared frequently, but not always, differed. The people who did this study appear to suggest that a perfect voter might be one who immune to fear, perhaps one who is comatose or drunk. As it stands, this "study" is rubbish. Most liberals I know are terrified of global warming. Most conservatives I know are terrified of nuclear terrorism. Which represents the greatest threat and how would we measure that (a far more interesting question) or do we just call it a wash? Things to fear are everywhere. As adults we learn to accept that, determine the risk level as far as we are capable, and prioritize. And move on with our lives.

A lot of dubious stuff gets into this and other science sites. Personally, this kind of junk science scares me silly. For example, I am in constant dread that there will be a follow-up study to the one that concluded a decade or so back that oral sex is not real sex. Unless I am asked to participate, of course.
2 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2008
You may have a point wordnerd ,more studies are needed and i would expect it to show that the more extreme one is to either left or right the more easily startled.
The difference between republican and democrat could be explained then by the fact that the democrats are not as far to the right of center than republicans.;D
4 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2008
In any psychological study, there are exceptions. But in general, I have observed that the individual will vote for the candidate who they believe benefits them the most. This study should try to address unique fears with pictures of Osama for instance. I for one, have no fear of Osama. I personally believe he was not responsible for 9-11 and only attacks those within the Islamic "empire?". Many people have been persuaded to fear Osama and that fear can manipulate a mind to desire protection from the alleged fear.
On another note, many people vote solely on the tax plans of the candidate. One candidate will benefit a specific group while another will benefit the other. This is alarming to me, because many/all candidates may be atrophic and the general population will vote for the one who steals the least from them.
If you do the research you will see that our tax system and the federal reserve are illegal and unconstitutional. But instead of voting for a person who will take the moral high road, we vote for the person who will benefit us the most. The individual chooses their "Robin Hood".
In Conclusion, this study approaches the reasoning to why individuals vote the way they do, but does not succeed at pin-pointing the culprit(s) to individual reasoning. I see all the truths for myself and believe that spending on this subject represents the wastefulness of our tax system.

Osama killed americans in his homeland.
Obama steals from the rich and spoils the poor.
McCain killed commies in their homeland.

not rated yet Sep 22, 2008
As with nearly all studies in the "soft" sciences (sociology, psycology), they are flawed because you can't control much of anything. Science and Nature don't normally take too many junk research articles, for those that say the study is crap because it doesn't take (insert whatever here) into account, you probably want to pull the actual article in Science before making such grandiose claims. I can't find anything in the study that is blatently false, so as fas as I'm concerned it's a good topic to look into that will need further research to make sure that it is at least somewhat repeatable.
4 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2008
This study is pretty poor seeing as current republicans are for the most part what democrats were back in the 60's 70's and 80's.

\The two parties are not different in practice anymore. The only difference you'll see is where they concentrate their focus when it comes to determining tax law and spending.

Repubs will typically tax less overall and spend less on social programs for the poor and under privilegded while they belive in personal responsibility.

Dems will tax more and spend more on social programs to elevate the poor and less fortunate but they believe in social conciousness rather than individual responsibility.

The outlines above hold true in most cases, (there are always exceptions) and can be evidenced by recent policy.

Dems tend to push for censorship in the media (video games, music, etc) while republicans do not.

Repubs tend to push for individual responsiblity by removing social programs like retirement, welfare, schooling (ERISA law, Educational Tax act, etc).

The two parties really boil down to one thing in their purest form:

What should the federal government be responsible for?

Repubs - As little as possible

Dems - As much as possible

That's about it. It's states rights vs Fed rights.

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