Forward Thinking

How Biology, Psychology Dictate Political Beliefs

By J.J. Goldberg

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I’m not quite sure where this sort of thing takes us, but I’m noticing a growing amount of chatter on the Web about scientific research into the nature of the conservative mind. The general tone seems to be one of wondering what flaws in one’s physical makeup lead to political conservatism. It could be just a sophisticated liberal version of old-fashioned name-calling, but some of the research seems pretty impressive.

Chris Mooney, author of “The Republican War on Science,” blogged yesterday on Huffington Post about a recent study, conducted at the political physiology laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, that points to biological factors linked to liberal and conservative beliefs. A key test involves differing physiological responses to potentially threatening images. Conservatives tend to show more intense defensive responses to images of mayhem or danger, indicating stronger fight-or-flight instincts. By contrast, liberals show stronger pleasure responses to potentially pleasing images like bunnies and smiling children. The researchers conclude that conservatism tends attract people who display greater alarm in the face of perceived threats, while liberalism attracts people whose makeup inclines them to try and adapt to change rather than fight or flee. One result, Mooney writes, is that conservatives bring greater intensity to their politics than liberals do, giving them an advantage in swaying the center.

The differences are linked to evolutionary development of human behavior, if you believe in evolution. Mooney also links to an earlier post in which he walks us through a batch of other recent studies into biological roots of liberal and conservative attitudes.

Then there’s the study published last month in the journal Psychological Science finding that, to be blunt, conservative beliefs are associated with lower intelligence as measured in standard intelligence tests. The study itself is very dense reading, but the magazine Live Science carried a very accessible writeup last month, and Britain’s conservative-leaning Daily Mail had a strikingly unskeptical report on it yesterday.

In case you’re wondering, the researchers used three data sets, including “two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874).” Their bottom line, as the researchers put it in their Psychological Science abstract:

lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology.

Another study, which I found so troubling that I’m going to write about it at greater length in an upcoming separate piece, is a book titled “Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others.” It was published last summer but is getting some new ink lately following a review by Andrew Hacker in the current New York Review of Books. The author of the book, NYU psychiatry professor James Gilligan (formerly of Harvard, former head of mental health services for the Mass. State prison system), went through 107 years of U.S. government statistics and found that violent deaths—homicides and suicides (both forms of taking a human life)—increase sharply during Republican presidential administrations and decline just as sharply during Democratic presidencies. The difference between a Republican and Democratic White House can range as high as 19,000 extra violent deaths per year, and it’s true of every presidency since 1900, when the federal government first started collecting annual death statistics, with the sole exceptions of the New Deal-enthusiast Republican Dwight Eisenhower and the neoliberal Democrat Jimmy Carter.

The reason, Gilligan argues, is that in stark contrast to popular belief, Republican presidencies are consistently associated with rising unemployment, increased frequency and length of recessions and growing economic inequality. All these factors lead to increases in the psychological stresses consistently associated with the taking of a human life, whether another person’s (homicide) or one’s own (suicide).

It sounds too prejudicial and far-fetched to be true, but Gilligan lays out the case piece by piece with detailed numbers and charts, plus references to related research that documents the individual pieces of his thesis. I just got the book yesterday (it’s not available on Kindle) so I’ll write about it in a few days.


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