Can science determine if you are a Liberal or a Conservative?

Posted By on April 6, 2014

Chris Mooney in an Inquiring Minds podcast interviewed John Hibbing, Jennifer Murray concentrates on the scene as she views a computer generated photo. Eye track visual tracking device to record how people view and read.  Mike Dodd psychology instructor. Jennifer Murray student volunteer. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communicationsa political scientist (University of Nebraska) and co-author of Predisposed: Liberal, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. They conversed at length about the research in measuring sympathetic symptoms of differing political ideologies. Mooney’s follow-up article also appeared in Mother Jones.

According to John Hibbing, the findings, using  eye tracker devices, skin sensor and other non-biased devices with a collage of known simulative images (example), demonstrated response differences between political ideologies. He says "It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently."


Hibbing’s research suggests that both liberals and conservatives were more attentive to negative, threatening and disgusting stimuli than those judged to be neutral or pleasant, but concluded that conservatives respond with “greater skin skin conductance—a moistening of the sweat glands that indicates arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body’s fight-or-flight response.” He states that the biggest difference is with “disgust” and that would make it more natural to “adopt tough, defensive and aversive ideologies to match this perceived reality.”

According to Chris Mooney’s article, much of what we think is a political choice, may be more “primal” or even “genetic” … although John Hibbing indicated that is more difficult to conclude.

They think that humans have core preferences for how societies ought to be structured: Some of us are more hierarchical, as opposed to egalitarian; some of us prefer harsher punishments for rule breakers, whereas some of us would be more inclined to forgive; some of us find outsiders or out-groups intriguing and enticing, whereas others find them threatening. Hibbing and his team have even found that preferences on such matters appear to have a genetic basis.

Thus, the idea seems to be that our physiology, who we are in our bodies, may lead us to experience the world in such a way that basic preferences about how to run society emerge naturally from more basic dispositions and habits of perception. So, if you have a negativity bias, and you focus more on the aversive and disgusting, then the world seems more threatening to you. And thus, policies like supporting a stronger military, or being tougher on immigration, might feel very natural.

And when you combine Hibbing’s research on the physiology of ideology with waves of other studies showing that liberals and conservatives appear to differ when it comes to genetics,hormones, moral emotions, personalities, and even brain structures, the case for politics being tied to biology seems pretty strong indeed.


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