[FoRK] Spiders, Maggots, Politics

kelley kelley at inkworkswell.com
Fri Sep 19 17:37:55 PDT 2008

To follow up on Jeffrey Winter's posting linking to two articles about 
voting behavior, "What Makes People Vote Republican?"
http://bit.ly/vote-republican (edge.org)and "5 Myths About Those 
Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters" http://bit.ly/five-myths 

I thought this article from Newsweek, which is circulating fast and 
furious, was interesting. As Gawker put it, "Conservatives are scared a 
lot" and Liberals won't reproduce enough, not being scared enough to stay 
out of harm's way. :)

Spiders, Maggots, Politics

A small but intriguing study finds that liberals and conservatives react 
differently when shown threatening images.
Tony Dokoupil
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Sep 18, 2008 | Updated: 1:49 p.m. ET Sep 18, 2008

It's a golden rule of democracy that people are free thinkers. There's just 
one problem: we aren't wired that way­not, at least, according to a new 
study that probes past the rational mind in search of a biological basis 
for our political beliefs. The research, led by Rice University political 
scientist John Alford and published today in the journal Science, attempts 
to connect the dots between a person's sensitivity to threatening images­a 
large spider on someone's face, a bloodied person and maggot-filled 
wound­and the strength of their support for conservative or liberal 
policies. The subjects of the small but intriguing study were chosen 
through random phone calls to residents of Lincoln, Neb., and consisted of 
46 mostly white Midwesterners who self-identified as having strong 
political beliefs. After filling out a survey of their political and 
demographic characteristics, participants were attached to a machine that 
measures arousal by increased moisture in the skin and presented with a 
slideshow of 30-odd images, including the three threatening ones. For 
comparison, the subjects were also shown three nonthreatening pictures­a 
bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child­within a separate sequence of 
slides. The more sensitive a participant was to the images, the wetter 
their skin got. Alford and his colleagues then correlated this with their 
political survey results.

The results seem to suggest that our ideas about the world are shaped by 
deep, involuntary reactions to the things we see. As evidence, the study 
found that greater sensitivity to the images was linked to more fervent 
support for a conservative agenda­including opposition to immigration, gun 
control, gay marriage, abortion rights and pacifism, and support for 
military spending, warrantless searches, the Iraq War, school prayer and 
the truth of the Bible. In other words, on the level of physiological 
reactions in the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may =s piders = gay 
marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces. Before 
liberals start cheering, however, they don't come off much more noble or 
nuanced. They were less sensitive to the threatening images, and more 
likely to support open immigration policies, pacifism and gun control. But 
according to the research, that's hardly desirable, since it suggests that 
liberals may display mammal-on-a-hot-rock languor in the face of legitimate 
threats. "They actually don't show any difference in physical response 
between a picture of a spider on someone's face and a picture of a bunny," 
Alford tells NEWSWEEK. Alford spoke with Tony Dokoupil about the emerging 
connections between politics and the perceived intensity of threats. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What surprised you the most?
John Alford: The clarity of the result. We came to this work after 
establishing that there is a genetic 
<http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080206091437.htm>component to 
political ideology, so that made us interested in understanding how you get 
from the genes to political attitudes. One way into that territory was 
physiology. But I really didn't expect such crisp results.

Still, does the sample size worry you?
A small sample usually makes it harder to get to a level of statistical 
significance [because the results must be particularly one-sided to 
register]. So the fact that we [make it] is really quite powerful for a 
first attempt to explore this area. We'll follow up with larger groups, but 
what this needs more people for is to divide it out into different 
categories, rather than challenge the basic results.

On the level of physiological reactions, in the conservative mind, are 
spiders and illegal immigrants the same?
Physiology is a blunt way to go from attitudes into biology, so it's not 
clear exactly how those two things might connect. But that's possible. The 
immediate way we experience threats might predispose people to find 
socially protective policies [like tight border control] more or less 
persuasive. For people that have low levels of support for these socially 
protective policies, on the other hand, they actually don't show any 
difference in physical response between a picture of a spider on someone's 
face and a picture of a bunny. So a way of thinking about this is that 
there's a portion of the population that is physically primed to be alert 
to threat, and that feels it physically, and they're more likely to support 
a set of positions shaped by that response to threat.

Other studies have focused on the psychology, rather than biology, of 
political beliefs. How are the two strains of research related?
All combined, they show us that there are roughly three influences on 
political opinion. One is a biological predisposition. Our study is a small 
window into that. Another is traditional socialization, such as the fact 
that I grew up during the depression, was in a lower middle-class family, 
and my parents were Republicans. The last is adult experience, reasoning 
power, or what's traditionally called free will.

How do those work out in practice?
If you ask someone why they support the Iraq War, they would probably give 
you some answers out of those latter two categories. They would make an 
intellectual argument: we were faced with a threat and this was the right 
choice. If you pushed, they might also mention socialization: well, I'm an 
Army brat, my dad was a colonel, my brother's in the Marines. One thing 
that they'd never say, in my experience is I'm simply biologically 
predisposed to be sensitive to threats. What's really important here is 
that we're not dismissing intellectual choice or experience. We're just 
asking for a place at the table for biology.

If political beliefs are hardened by biology, how do you explain flip-flops?
You'd only have trouble explaining them if you considered biology to be 
deterministic. By the same token, if you thought childhood socialization 
was everything, you couldn't explain a flip-flop. The person's childhood 
didn't change.

If biology isn't deterministic, is it at least probabilistic?
It's a question of how easy it is to get from event A to belief B. Russia 
invades Georgia. What's your response? Military action or be nice to the 
Russians? You can get to either position intellectually, but how easy it is 
influenced by whether you experience it as an immediate physical threat or 
not. I don't think that biology is destiny, but for the general public, I 
want people to believe that it's something. Right now it's seen as nothing. 
It's given zero weight.

Tell that to the people making political ads with packs of wolves and 
ominous 3 a.m. phone calls.
That's interesting, actually, because this study shows that the ability for 
[scare tactics] to work may not be uniform across the population. As for 
why political strategists have long used threatening images, it seems that 
sometimes people who do something have a sort of folk wisdom that exceeds 
the general knowledge, and even the academic knowledge.

You often hear that the right is great at "mobilizing their base." Could 
this be because the right is more sensitive to threats?
I think that's one conclusion. It may also explain why it's self-apparent 
to people who hold [what are now right-wing positions] that they're really 
important, and frustrating why it isn't obvious to the other side. It's 
like, "What part of the difference between a spider and a bunny don't you 
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/159540

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