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Sensitivity to sudden noises may predict your politics

Sept. 18, 2008
Courtesy Rice University
and World Science staff

We all knew po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes weren’t based purely on log­ic, but could seem­ingly ir­rel­e­vant fac­tors such as sen­si­ti­vity to loud noises af­fect your po­lit­i­cal judg­ments?

It seems that way, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­ent­ist John Al­ford of Rice Uni­ver­s­ity in Tex­as and col­leagues wrote in the Sept. 19 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence that they stud­ied a ran­dom sam­ple of 46 U.S. adults with strong po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. 

At left and right, sym­bols of left-wing and right-wing po­li­tics. (Im­age cour­tesy Joel Brehm)


Those with “mea­surably low­er phys­i­cal sen­si­ti­vi­ties to sud­den noises and threat­en­ing vis­u­al im­ages were more likely to sup­port for­eign aid, lib­er­al im­migra­t­ion poli­cies, pac­i­fism and gun con­trol,” the team wrote.

On the oth­er hand, “in­di­vid­u­als dis­play­ing mea­sur­ably high­er physiolog­ical re­ac­tions to those same stim­u­li were more likely to fa­vor de­fense spend­ing, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, pat­ri­ot­ism and the Iraq War.”

Par­ti­ci­pants were cho­sen ran­domly over the phone in Lin­coln, Neb. Those ex­press­ing strong po­lit­i­cal views were asked to fill out a ques­tion­naire on their be­liefs, per­son­al­ity traits and de­mo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics. 

Lat­er, they were at­tached to physiolog­ical meas­ur­ing equip­ment and shown three threat­en­ing im­ages—a big spi­der on some­one’s fright­ened face, a dazed and blood­ied per­son, and an open, maggot-infested wound—mixed among a se­quence of 33 im­ages. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, par­ti­ci­pants al­so viewed three non­threat­en­ing im­ages—a bun­ny, a bowl of fruit and a hap­py child—mixed with­in a se­ries of oth­er im­ages. A sec­ond test meas­ured in­vol­un­tary re­sponses to a startling noise.

The re­search­ers not­ed a cor­rela­t­ion be­tween those who re­acted strongly to the stim­u­li and those who ex­pressed sup­port for “so­cially pro­tec­tive poli­cies,” which tend to be held by peo­ple “par­tic­u­larly con­cerned with pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of the par­ti­ci­pants’ group, de­fined as the Un­ited States in mid-2007, from threats.” 

These po­si­tions in­clude sup­port for mil­i­tary spend­ing, war­rant­less searches, the death pen­al­ty, the Pa­tri­ot Act, obe­di­ence, pat­ri­ot­ism, the Iraq War, school pray­er and Bib­li­cal truth, and op­po­si­tion to pac­i­fism, im­migra­t­ion, gun con­trol, for­eign aid, com­pro­mise, pre­mar­i­tal sex, gay mar­riage, abor­tion rights and por­nog­ra­phy.

“Po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes vary with physiolog­ical traits linked to di­ver­gent man­ners of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing and pro­cess­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal threats,” the pa­per con­clud­ed. This may help to ex­plain “both the lack of mal­leabil­ity in the be­liefs of in­di­vid­u­als with strong po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions and the as­so­ci­at­ed ubiqu­ity of po­lit­i­cal con­flic­t,” the au­thors said.


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We all knew political attitudes weren’t based purely on logic, but could seemingly irrelevant factors such as sensitivity to loud noises affect your political judgments? It seems that way, according to a new report. Political scientist John Alford of Rice University in Texas and colleagues reported in the Sept. 19 issue of the research journal Science that they studied a random sample of 46 U.S. adults with strong political beliefs. Those with “measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control,” the team wrote. On the other hand, “individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War.” Participants were chosen randomly over the phone in Lincoln, Neb. Those expressing strong political views were asked to fill out a questionnaire on their beliefs, personality traits and demographic characteristics. Later, they were attached to physiological measuring equipment and shown three threatening images—a big spider on someone’s frightened face, a dazed and bloodied person, and an open, maggot-infested wound—interspersed among a sequence of 33 images. Similarly, participants also viewed three nonthreatening images (a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child) placed within a series of other images. A second test used auditory stimuli to measure involuntary responses to a startling noise. The researchers noted a correlation between those who reacted strongly to the stimuli and those who expressed support for “socially protective policies,” which tend to be held by people “particularly concerned with protecting the interests of the participants’ group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats.” These positions include support for military spending, warrantless searches, the death penalty, the Patriot Act, obedience, patriotism, the Iraq War, school prayer and Biblical truth, and opposition to pacifism, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, compromise, premarital sex, gay marriage, abortion rights and pornography. “Political attitudes vary with physiological traits linked to divergent manners of experiencing and processing environmental threats,” the paper concluded. This may help to explain “both the lack of malleability in the beliefs of individuals with strong political convictions and the associated ubiquity of political conflict,” the authors said.