Forward Thinking

How Biology, Psychology Dictate Political Beliefs

By J.J. Goldberg

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.

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'Taking Out' Obama, and Our Slide Into Madness

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
President Barack Obama

I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere.

Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?

One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.

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