Most Americans have been actively engaged in the frustrating sport of arguing about politics, which often leads to the common refrain; “You just don’t get it!” So this made me wonder why people who seem to have similar life experiences can end up with such dramatically different personal philosophies — philosophies that ultimately affect their political views and voting behavior. Apparently, I am not the only one to wonder about such things, because a paper was just published in Science that investigates this phenomenon. According to this paper, people who are easily startled by threatening images or loud sounds are more likely to espouse protectionist political views than those who are more relaxed.
A team of researchers led by John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, studied the physiological responses of people with strongly-held political views and found that those who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend be more defensive on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. In contrast, people who are less sensitive to potential threats likewise tend to be predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.
“I was quite struck watching the conventions by the different tones,” said Hibbing about the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. “The Republicans are waving placards saying, ‘country first.’ Democrats are not saying, ‘country last,’ but there is a concern that is visceral in one group but not another.”
To do this research, Hibbing and his colleagues recruited 46 white partisan Republicans and Democrats from a pool of 1310 people in Nebraska whom they initially contacted by telephone. The volunteers were surveyed regarding their views on a variety of topics, including the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, pacifism and school prayer. All the questions were designed to test how strongly people needed to guard against various internal and external threats. None focused on economic issues.
Two months later, the volunteers were invited into the lab and were hooked up to devices that measure several autonomic physiological responses that are linked to threat response. These autonomic responses are produced by the sympathetic nervous system, which controls many of the body’s “fight or flight” responses. Sympathetic nervous system responses cannot be controlled by conscious thought.
The first response the team measured was moisture on the skin. According to previous studies cited by the authors, skin conductance “has been closely linked with the psychological concepts of emotion, arousal, and attention” and “provides relatively direct and undiluted representation of sympathetic activity”.
In this experiment, a person who feels a threat produces more skin moisture, which is measured as changes to the electrical conductance of the skin. After being hooked up to the skin conductance monitor, the volunteers were then showed 33 images, including a very large spider on the face of a terrified person, a person whose face had been bloodied, and an open wound filled with maggots. (As an arachnophobe, the spider image would absolutely terrify me). The researchers then compared their volunteers’ reactions to the threatening images with their responses to three non-threatening images; a happy child, a bowl of fruit and a bunny (figure 1);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627 [larger view].
According to these data, the researchers found that the volunteers who held conservative political views were more likely to react to the threatening images through increased skin conductance.
The other physiological response that the team measured was the orbicularis
oculi startle blink response, an involuntary response to a startling noise. Harder blinks (higher blink amplitudes) are indicative of a heightened “fear state.” In this series of experiments, the threatening stimulus was a loud, standardized level of white noise that the volunteers heard through headphones at seven unexpected moments while they were looking at a computer screen containing a focus point (figure 2);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627 [larger view].
The researchers noted that startle blink responses can become habituated, however, despite this, they still found that the tendency for high blink amplitudes to correlate with respondents that supported protective political policies was consistent across the study and was also apparent for the overall means (figure 3);
While reporting that their data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes, these data do not provide firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes that underlie these reactions. However, they think that there is a biological relationship to political views.
“There is some sort of broad left-right orientation that pervades not only our politics, but politics across the world and across time,” mentioned co-author John R. Alford, who is a political scientist at Rice University. “This variation could have biological underpinnings.”
However, from what I saw in this study, the weight of those biological underpinnings are open to question, debate and further study.
For example, this study did not take age, race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status into consideration. The researchers also relied on a very small group of nearly exclusively white, politically active people, and further, they did not conduct any follow-up regarding how the volunteers percieved the “threatening” images to determine if they did find them to be so.
“I don’t think that biology is destiny, but for the general public, I want people to believe that it’s something,” Alford concurs. “Right now it’s seen as nothing. It’s given zero weight.”
Alford has a point: Genetics play a significant role in human behavior, but I don’t think his point should override the real question; just how important and how pervasive is the role of genetics in predicting human behavior? This is a topic that has triggered vigorous debate for at least one century (i. e.; the “nature versus nurture” debate), and the question does not appear to be anywhere close to being resolved. Hopefully, this study will inspire more rigorous research into this interesting topic.
D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627.