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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