April 7, 2013

Left, right: The brain science of politics

Politico: One key finding that “Predisposed” will highlight: conservatives and liberals respond differently when presented with extremely pleasant images—like people skiing, fruit baskets and sunsets—and disturbing pictures, like fires, vomit and rodents.

Study participants, after answering an extensive battery of questions about their political beliefs, were hooked up to sensors that test skin conductance—the measure of how quickly electricity moves through the body, which sometimes manifests itself in outward signs like sweaty palms. When conservatives viewed the negative images, researchers measured a greater increase in skin conductance when compared with liberals, indicating those on the right were responding more strongly.

“If you’re responding [strongly] to those things, you want to protect yourself, your family, your country,” Hibbing said of conservatives reacting intensely to the negative images.

Conservatives also spent more time focused on the unpleasant images than liberals did.

“If you focus on the negative, perhaps it makes more sense to you to believe in strong defense or be reluctant about immigration,” Hibbing said.

In another experiment, subjects looked at a computer screen featuring a cartoon face, with instructions to hit the space bar when they saw a black dot appear on the screen. When the cartoon’s eyes were looking away from the dot, liberals were much slower to hit the space bar than when the eyes were turned to the same side of the screen on which the dot was located. Conservatives weren’t affected the the cartoon’s gaze and tapped the space bar just as quickly, whether the cartoon was looking at the dot or away from it.

Hibbing says that’s because liberals were much more focused on the gaze of the cartoon character.

So what’s the political takeaway from the study? Hibbing says, “Liberals will say it’s a good thing, you should be influenced by eyes on a screen. Conservatives say we should be strong individuals, we shouldn’t be influenced by people around us. It’s whether you’re empathetic and in touch, or strong and independent.”

“The pattern is that conservatives are somewhat more attuned and responsive to negative features of the environment, negative situations, negative stimuli,” he said.

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