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Right- and left-wingers found to look at things differently—literally

Jan. 25, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
and World Science staff

From ca­ble TV news pun­dits to red-meat speeches, deep po­lit­i­cal stereo­types are on full dis­play in the un­fold­ing U.S. elec­tion sea­son. Con­ser­va­tives paint self-in­dul­gent lib­er­als as in­suf­ferably ab­sent on ur­gent na­t­ional is­sues. Lib­er­als say fear-mongering con­ser­va­tives are fix­at­ed on ex­ag­ger­at­ed dan­gers to the coun­try.

A new U.S. study sug­gests there are bi­o­log­i­cal truths to such broad brush­strokes.

In a se­ries of ex­pe­ri­ments, re­search­ers closely mon­i­tored phys­i­o­logical re­ac­tions and eye move­ments of study par­ti­ci­pants shown com­bina­t­ions of both pleas­ant and un­pleas­ant im­ages. Con­ser­va­tives re­acted more strongly to, fix­at­ed more quickly on, and looked long­er at the un­pleas­ant im­ages; lib­er­als had stronger re­ac­tions to and looked long­er at the pleas­ant im­ages com­pared with con­ser­va­tives.

“It’s been said that con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als don’t see things in the same way,” said Mike Dodd, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Nebraska-Lincoln and the stu­dy’s lead au­thor. “These find­ings make that clear – quite lit­er­al­ly.”

Par­ti­ci­pants were shown a se­ries of im­ages on a screen. Elec­trodes at­tached to the skin meas­ured sub­tle elec­tri­cal changes, in­dic­a­tive of emo­tion­al re­ac­tions. Par­ti­ci­pants were al­so out­fit­ted with eye­track­ing equip­ment that cap­tured even the most sub­tle of eye move­ments. Re­search­ers found that while lib­er­als’ gazes tended to fall up­on the pleas­ant im­ages, such as a beach ball or a bun­ny rab­bit, con­ser­va­tives fo­cused on the neg­a­tive im­ages – of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toi­let, for ex­am­ple.

Con­sist­ent with this pat­tern, con­ser­va­tives al­so ex­hib­ited a stronger phys­i­o­logical re­sponse to im­ages of Dem­o­crat­ic politi­cians – pre­sumed to be a neg­a­tive to them – than they did on pic­tures of well-known Re­pub­li­cans. Lib­er­als, on the oth­er hand, had a stronger phys­i­o­logical re­sponse to the Democrats – pre­sumed to be a pos­i­tive stim­u­lus to them – than they did to im­ages of the Re­pub­li­cans.

By stu­dying both phys­i­o­logical and cog­ni­tive as­pects, the re­search­ers es­tab­lished un­ique new in­sights in­to the grow­ing no­tion that po­lit­i­cal lean­ings are at least par­tial prod­ucts of our bi­ol­o­gy, po­lit­i­cal sci­ent­ist and study co-au­thor Kev­in Smith of the uni­vers­ity said.

Re­cent re­search on the sub­ject has fo­cused mostly on phys­i­o­logical re­ac­tions to neg­a­tive stim­u­li. The new stu­dy’s use of cog­ni­tive da­ta re­gard­ing both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive im­age­ry adds to the un­der­stand­ing of how lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives ex­perience the world, Smith said.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­ent­ist and co-au­thor John Hib­bing, al­so at the un­ivers­ity, said the re­sults might mean that those on the right are more at­tuned and at­ten­tive to aver­sive el­e­ments in life and are more nat­u­rally in­clined to con­front them. From an ev­o­lu­tion­ary stand­point, that makes sense, he said.

The re­sults al­so are con­sist­ent with con­ser­va­tives’ sup­port of poli­cies to pro­tect so­ci­e­ty from per­ceived ex­ter­nal threats (sup­port for in­creased de­fense spend­ing or op­po­si­tion to im­migra­t­ion) and in­ter­nal ones as well (sup­port for tra­di­tion­al val­ues and be­ing tough on crime), Hib­bing said.

The re­search­ers con­tend their dis­cov­ery of­fers an op­por­tun­ity to rec­og­nize the rel­e­vance of deeper bi­o­log­i­cal vari­ables in pol­i­tics and re­duce po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iz­a­tion. Rath­er than be­liev­ing those with op­po­site po­lit­i­cal views are un­in­formed or will­fully ob­tuse, the au­thors said, po­lit­i­cal tol­er­ance could be en­hanced if it was widely un­der­stood that po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences are based in part on our phys­i­o­lo­gic­al and cog­ni­tive dif­fer­ences.

“When con­ser­va­tives say that lib­er­als are out of it and just don’t get it, from this stand­point, that’s true,” Hib­bing said. “And when lib­er­als say ‘What are (con­ser­va­tives) so fright­ened of? Is the world really that dan­ger­ous?’ Giv­en what each side sees, what they pay at­ten­tion to, what they phys­i­o­logi­c­ally ex­perience – the an­swer is both sides are right.”


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From cable TV news pundits to red-meat speeches, deep political stereotypes are on full display in the unfolding U.S. election season. Conservatives paint self-indulgent liberals as insufferably absent on urgent national issues, while liberals say fear-mongering conservatives are fixated on exaggerated dangers to the country. A new study suggests there are biological truths to such broad brushstrokes. In a series of experiments, researchers closely monitored physiological reactions and eye movements of study participants shown combinations of both pleasant and unpleasant images. Conservatives reacted more strongly to, fixated more quickly on, and looked longer at the unpleasant images; liberals had stronger reactions to and looked longer at the pleasant images compared with conservatives. “It’s been said that conservatives and liberals don’t see things in the same way,” said Mike Dodd, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the study’s lead author. “These findings make that clear – quite literally.” American participants were shown a series of images on a screen. Electrodes attached to the skin measured subtle electrical changes, indicative of emotional reactions. Participants were also outfitted with eyetracking equipment that captured even the most subtle of eye movements. Researchers found that while liberals’ gazes tended to fall upon the pleasant images, such as a beach ball or a bunny rabbit, conservatives focused on the negative images – of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toilet, for example. Consistent with this pattern, conservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians – presumed to be a negative to them – than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans. Liberals, on the other hand, had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats – presumed to be a positive stimulus to them – than they did to images of the Republicans. By studying both physiological and cognitive aspects, the researchers established unique new insights into the growing notion that political leanings are at least partial products of our biology, political scientist and study co-author Kevin Smith of the university said. Recent research on the subject has focused mostly on physiological reactions to negative stimuli. The new study’s use of cognitive data regarding both positive and negative imagery adds to the understanding of how liberals and conservatives see and experience the world, Smith said. Political scientist and co-author John Hibbing, also at the university, said the results might mean that those on the right are more attuned and attentive to aversive elements in life and are more naturally inclined to confront them. From an evolutionary standpoint, that makes sense, he said. The results also are consistent with conservatives’ support of policies to protect society from perceived external threats (support for increased defense spending or opposition to immigration) and internal ones as well (support for traditional values and being tough on crime), Hibbing said. The researchers contend their discovery offers an opportunity to recognize the relevance of deeper biological variables in politics and reduce political polarization. Rather than believing those with opposite political views are uninformed or willfully obtuse, the authors said, political tolerance could be enhanced if it was widely understood that political differences are based in part on our physiological and cognitive differences. “When conservatives say that liberals are out of it and just don’t get it, from this standpoint, that’s true,” Hibbing said. “And when liberals say ‘What are (conservatives) so frightened of? Is the world really that dangerous?’ Given what each side sees, what they pay attention to, what they physiologically experience – the answer is both sides are right.”