Secrets of the right-wing brain: New study proves it — conservatives see a different, hostile world

Phony WMD, Benghazi, birthers, truthers -- turns out there's a scientific explanation for deniers and Tea Partyers

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Secrets of the right-wing brain: New study proves it -- conservatives see a different, hostile worldRand Paul (Credit: AP/Jim Cole)

“John Stuart Mill called it ‘commonplace’ for political systems to have ‘a party or order or stability and a party of progress or reform.’” So begins a recent paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. But is this “commonplace” observation rooted in our brains? Is it even true?

The paper, “Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology,” by lead author John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, answers yes to both questions. It advances three successive waves of evidence, which combine to show that conservatives differ from liberals by having stronger, more intense reactions to negative aspects of the environment — such as physical threats, or potential sources of disease — which are ultimately physiological. At the same time, with multiple forms of mass hysteria going on at once, American conservatives seem dead set on proving the scientists right, and underscoring the importance of the work they’re doing.

But here’s the twist: The scientists themselves insist that “citing differences in the psychological and physiological traits of liberals and conservatives is not equivalent to declaring one ideology superior to the other.” While this may be true in an abstract sense, and a mix of psychological tendencies makes a society more robust in the long run — balancing needs for caution and self-preservation with needs for exploration, innovation and renewal — in 21st century America, things look strikingly different.

Conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen — Saddam’s WMD, Shariah law, voter fraud, Obama’s radical anti-colonial mind-set, Benghazi, etc. — make it hard not to see conservatism’s prudent risk avoidance as having morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia, especially fueled by recurrent “moral panics,” a sociological phenomenon in which a group of “social entrepreneurs” whips up hysterical fears over a group of relatively powerless “folk devils” who are supposedly threatening the whole social order. Given that conservatism seems to be part of human nature — just as liberalism is — we’re going to need all the help we can get in figuring out how to live with it, without being dominated, controlled and crippled by it.



Consider the recent wave of hysteria over Central American children turning themselves in at the border. There were the hordes of angry demonstrators protesting busloads of children, like it was Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. There was the congressman/doctor Phil Gingrey’s warning letter to the CDC, claiming that the children might be carrying the Ebola virus — a disease unknown outside Sub-Saharan Africa. There was the ludicrous myth of the “$50 million illegal alien resort spa.” But above all there was the most basic, fundamental fact that the children were turning themselves in at the border — it was anything but a failure of border protection, although that’s what the right-wing hysteria portrayed it as.

Put simply, none of what conservatives have been doing in the recent “border crisis” moral panic makes any sense in terms of pragmatic problem-solving. But it all makes perfect sense in terms of expressively defending a threatened group identity — and that is very much in line with what researchers have found to be the defining characteristics of conservatism.

“I think immigration is a perfect example of some of the things we’re talking about,” Hibbing told Salon. “I guess I wouldn’t frame it, I probably wouldn’t use the phrase ‘moral panic,’” he qualified — sometimes psychologists and sociologists don’t see eye-to-eye — “and I wouldn’t frame it necessarily as just threat,” he added, quickly going on to explain, “A lot of the adverse to immigration could be traced to a disgust reaction as well, which is another negative stimulus being used a lot. A lot of the language that one hears, even now with the kids on the border, is fear of disease and impurities, things like that. So it’s not just threat — or it’s threat, in a way, but not like ‘a bad guy with a gun.’ It’s fear of pathogens as well,” he explained.

“So anyway, I think that is a perfect example of how these kinds of basic orientations to negative and positive stimuli can then translate themselves into political positions on issues of the day; in this case, a really important one like immigration.”

Could all the differences between liberals and conservatives really come down to something as simple as differences in responses to perceived threat? In a word, no. Just as the title of his paper says, the research Hibbing and others have done shows that differences in threat bias underlie variations in political ideology; they do not explain all the variation, just a good chunk of it. Yet, that in itself is a tremendous advancement.

To understand what Hibbing and his colleagues have achieved, it’s useful to compare their work to a 2003 paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by John Jost and colleagues, which made a more modest, but related claim that conservatism could be understood as an ensemble of tendencies within a unified framework. That paper focused on psychological survey data — information gleaned from conscious questioning in 88 separate studies across decades of research in 12 countries. It did not claim that motivated reasoning was limited to conservatives, or that motivated reasoning was necessarily false, although many of its initial critics in Congress and elsewhere jumped to those conclusions (and some even threatened to defund the entire field of research into political psychology). But the paper’s abstract did say that “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).”

While alarmed conservatives thought they saw a sinister plot afoot, those familiar with some of the studies cited probably saw something else: an intriguing array of diverse yet interrelated factors, crying out for some sort of simplifying insight that could explain how and why they all fit together in some relatively simple, straightforward manner. Like the chemical elements before Mendeleev, or the subatomic particles in the pre-quark era, scientists in the field faced a too-complicated picture for their sense of order and simplicity to abide. They had their own sort of motivated cognition, you see.

But that earlier paper was relatively tame compared to the new one by by Hibbing’s team, which also wrote the book ”Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.” Where “Political Conservatism” talked about psychology, Hibbing’s work also talks about brain structure and function. It burrows much more deeply into who we are, and by surfacing the far-reaching power of a single unifying factor — differences in threat bias — it achieves a dramatic simplification of the overall picture of the field.

Hibbing is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which has a political physiology lab “dedicated to exploring the relevance of individual-level biological variations to political orientations and behaviors,” which may well be the only one of its kind — so far. But the evolution from political psychology to political physiology in recent years has many collaborators, and the paper appeared with comments from 26 researchers or research teams, with similar expertise, the vast majority of whom (“22 or 23” by Hibbing’s count) basically accepted the general idea of the findings, though with varying degrees and kinds of qualification.

The authors note that approaches based on trying to explain political attitudes based on genetics or on parents’ political views have not produced clear, substantial results, which is why they propose to focus on an intermediate level, between pure biology and explicit political influence — that of physiological responses to experience, the realm in which threat bias emerges.

The findings of a 2008 paper from Hibbing’s team provide a concrete illustration of what they have focused on in their own work, which in turn informs their evaluation of the work of others. Forty-six individuals with strong political attitudes were exposed to three threatening images mixed among 30 neutral ones, and their physiological responses (changes in skin conductance level) were compared to their political attitudes on 18 issues related to “protecting the interests of the participants’ group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats.” The more conservative “group protective” participants showed “an increase in skin conductance when threatening stimuli were presented,” while those who were more liberal, less “group protective” were “mostly unaffected by those same stimuli” — a difference that was statistically significant.

The threatening images included “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it.” The policy issues were “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.” The researchers themselves did not label them as “liberal” or “conservative,” “because we measure only one aspect of ideologies and exclude other aspects such as positions on economic issues.” However, the relationship between conservatism and group protection is self-evident, even if not all-encompassing.

In the current paper, the authors’ argument proceeds in four stages. First, an examination of “liberal-conservative psychological differences as reflected in (survey) self-reports,” which was established in Jost’s 2003 meta-analysis, and has been expanded on since. They note that two of the five core personality traits — known as the Big Five — correlate consistently with political orientation “across a broad range of studies” — conservatives score higher on conscientiousness while liberals score higher on openness to new experiences. (The other three traits are agreeableness, extraversion and emotional stability). Second, they review “psychological differences that are not fully accessible to the participants themselves,” such as differences in responding to negative imagery. Third, they describe evidence of “physiological differences between liberals and conservatives,” including differences in brain structure and function. Fourth, they present a synthesis of the research “arguing that many of the correlations described are tied together by the common thread of differences in response patterns to negative stimuli.” They point out that “Good evolutionary reasons exist for negativity bias given that negative events can be much more costly in fitness terms than positive events are beneficial; to state the obvious, infection, injury, and death curtail reproductive opportunities.”

However, what matters for political psychology is not the existence of negativity bias, “but that it varies so much from individual to individual,” the authors write. “That some people are more attuned to potential threats, more sensitive to sources of contagion, and more desirous of in-group protections is known intuitively and amply demonstrated by a large research literature,” and this variation in heightened negativity bias is significantly correlated with conservatism. Indeed, the authors state, that there is no known published study indicating the opposite.

The connection between heightened negativity bias and conservatism is not hard to make, the authors note, “It is not surprising that those attuned to the negative in life might take steps to avoid it, perhaps by refraining from taking chances with the unknown, by following instructions, and by sticking to the tried and true.” (Indeed, erring on the side of caution is one of the non-political meanings of the word “conservative,” as in a “conservative investment” or a “conservative estimate.”) Elaborating further, they note:

[N]ot only do political positions favoring defense spending, roadblocks to immigration, and harsh treatment of criminals seem naturally to mesh with heightened response to threatening stimuli but those fostering conforming unity (school children reciting the pledge of allegiance), traditional lifestyles (opposition to gay marriage), enforced personal responsibility (opposition to welfare programs and government provided healthcare), longstanding sources of authority (Biblical inerrancy; literal, unchanging interpretations of the Constitution), and clarity and closure (abstinence-only sex education; signed pledges to never raise taxes; aversion to compromise) do, as well. Heightened response to the general category of negative stimuli fits comfortably with a great many of the typical tenets of political conservatism.

Summing up, they conclude:

Thus, it is reasonable to hypothesize that individuals who are physiologically and psychologically responsive to negative stimuli will tend to endorse public policies that minimize tangible threats by giving prominence to past, traditional solutions, by limiting human discretion (or endorsing institutions, such as the free market, that do not require generosity, discretion, and altruism), by being protective, by promoting ingroups relative to out-groups, and by embracing strong, unifying policies and authority figures

This is not to say the authors think there are no outstanding problems or challenges that remain to be fully explained or resolved. In particular, they focus on three major concerns. First, the problem of causal order, “Do physiological and broad psychological traits shape political dispositions, or might political dispositions actually shape physiological and broad psychological traits?” Second, the problem of messiness: that political orientations do not necessarily organize themselves neatly onto a single left/right continuum. Third, the problem of ultimate causes: “[I]f negativity bias leads to the adoption of certain personality traits, basic values, moral foundations, and bedrock political principles, what causes variation in negativity bias in the first place?”

Regarding the problem of causal order, they note that resolving the issue “requires either longitudinal or experimental data,” and that although such studies are few, they all point to politics as resulting from physiological and psychological traits, rather than causing them, although questions were subsequently raised by commentators. It certainly seems plausible that causation could flow both ways, and more studies are clearly called for to illuminate this.

The messiness question is a good deal messier. On the individual level, people often have views on one or more subjects that are at odds with the overall positions of others who share their ideology. As groups, there are various intra-ideological cleavages as well — as shown in Pew’s political typologies, for example. There are also questions raised by political moderates, and those who shy away from politics altogether. More generally, there is the question of dimensionality: Is there really only one dimension to political beliefs, or are there two—social and economic — or more? This was a subject of considerable debate among commentators as well, but in the response section, the authors noted:

If a concept such as negativity bias could account for a significant portion of the variance merely in socio-cultural political preferences, it would be an important accomplishment. If it were able to account for economic or equality issues, as well, we would view this as icing on the cake.

In short, regardless of how the dimensionality question is answered, the threat bias explanation for ideological differences is still a significant advance in our understanding.

However, cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio, author of “Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy,” told Salon there’s a very direct connection between social and economic conservatism, based on their moral outlook. Two things stand out about how conservatives talk about economy, Osorio said, based on several years of intensive observation and analysis. First is the “the tendency to compare it to something natural — a body or the weather or moving liquid,” she said. “But the other idea undergirding their worldview, and thus shaping perceptions of poverty, riches, inequality and desirable economic policy, is the idea that the economy exists for a specific purpose: to reward the good and punish the bad. It’s a moral arbiter; simply having great riches indicates you deserve them because the economy loves you the best. Thus, it follows that poor people deserve to be poor and we can know this because they’re poor.”

The question of ultimate causes is intriguing on several fronts. First, because of possible evolutionary origins:

One possibility is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene. Compared with the modern era, existence then was much more likely to be terminated prematurely at the hands of other human beings or by accidents involving wild animals or natural disasters

Second, because of how conditions have changed:

In modern life, on the other hand, threats are less immediate and the selection pressures for elevated negativity biases have likely been reduced, opening the door for substantial genetic variation at relevant loci.

Third, because of the effects of this change, which can help explain conservatism as more tightly defined than liberalism:

If strong negativity biases were once selected for but now are not, it could explain why results often indicate that conservatism is in some senses better defined than liberalism. Conservatives have a negativity bias, whereas liberals do not have a positivity bias and may or may not have a negativity bias. Conservatives sometimes take umbrage at this situation, arguing that it is the result of liberal academics viewing conservatism as an aberration that needs to be explained. In truth, its status as a tighter, more discussed phenotype may be a result of the fact that, in contrast to proto-liberalism, proto-conservatism was once selected for.

Finally, the authors note that there’s a group-selection argument for the benefit of ideological diversity, although it may be more problematic for us today — a point I’ll return to later on.

As indicated above, there was broad acceptance of the general thesis of the negativity bias, but there was also a vigorous and multifaceted debate about how it fits together with the rest of what’s already known. There were far too many different issues raised to summarize them here. Instead, I’d like to focus on just one set of issues, raised from slightly different angles by different commentators, which Hibbing also commented on for Salon.

The first was raised by psychologists Matt Motyl and Ravi Iyer, who argued that negativity bias explains a lot about conservatives, but leaves some notable gaps. “Conservatives live in safer communities, perhaps to escape negative emotions, yet display numerous other community preferences unrelated to negativity,” they wrote, such as preferring to live in communities with greater involvement in competitive sports — which would naturally increase their potential exposure to competitive loss. They proposed an alternate explanation, that of a “tendency toward cognitive consistency,” which seems to make excellent sense, particularly as a follow-on influence: Once negativity bias starts shaping the broad contours of ideological orientations, consistency comes into the picture, fleshing out areas where negativity bias may not be as dramatically involved — voluntarily playing games, for example, as opposed to involuntarily being thrust into a struggle for survival.

“I’ve got no problem, I think that’s perfectly complementary,” Hibbing told Salon, in response to that notion. He saw it as well within the framework of the vast majority of comments they had received. “In fact, all the commentary — well, not all, but most of them — we were quite pleased with, because they did seem to, for the most part, accept our basic notion of greater threat sensitivity, and then kind of introduce their own angles, and twists and additions to it. And I think that’s a perfect example of that.”

The idea that negativity bias generates conservative ideology, but that cognitive coherence helps shapes how it is structured, is not a new one. Indeed, this is precisely what cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued in his 1996 book, ”Moral Politics.” The coherence he proposed came from two contrasting child-rearing models, which he called the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent” models. But the initial logic of the “strict father” model was that it was intended to prepare children for life in a “dangerous world.” In contrast, the “nurturant parent” model was less focused on guarding against threats, more on nurturing capabilities. It was not heedless of danger — just not obsessively focused on it.

Significantly, another commentator, Ross Buck, raised a related issue in which he also drew on Lakoff’s work, in the past. Buck argued that “differences between liberal and conservative orientations … are emotional in nature and caused by differences in attachment security: Conservatives are more vigilant to negative features of the environment because of a general sense of insecurity, whereas liberals are relatively more secure.” In political theory terms, Buck related this back to the distinction between how the conservative Hobbes and the liberal Locke conceived of the state of nature, and the social contract:

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that all are motivated by instincts for self-preservation to dominate others while maintaining their own freedom. The resulting universal war of all against all made life in the state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short,” and the social contract was established as a universal peace treaty to end this conflict.

Hobbes used this argument, not incidentally, as a justification for monarchy, providing new life for the traditional rationale of the divine right of kings. However:

In contrast, John Locke suggested that people in the state of nature lived together peacefully without leaders according to reason and natural law.

As for consequences, Buck wrote:

Among other things, the relatively greater security of liberals prompts them to regard the less fortunate with pity, whereas more anxiously attached conservatives tend to regard them with scorn.

Buck also related his account to the analysis of Jonathan Haidt “who described ‘other condemning’ social/moral emotions – anger, disgust, and contempt – and a conservative ‘disgust-based moral order,’ which condemns people for what they are more than what they do, and tends to ostracize and excludes members of out-groups (based upon ethnicity, religion, social class, sexual orientation, etc.),” and to Lakoff:

The attachment-security argument also suggests a developmental origin of the liberal-conservative difference, consistent with Lakoff’s (2002) suggestion that liberal thought centers around the Nurturing Parent model of the family as opposed to Strict Father model of morality underlying conservative thought.

As with Motyl and Iyer’s argument, I thought it more plausible that attachment security reflects, amplifies and generalizes the influence of negativity bias, but it could have a circular feedback impact as well.

Again, Hibbing said that it sounded very plausible. “I think that’s a nice way of viewing how it could come about,” he said. Genetics are only part of the story, and considering how individuals are raised as well “makes perfect sense,” he said. “If there’s a father or mother who has heightened threat sensitivity, it stands to reason that they could raise their child in a slightly different way, and this could explain the generational transmission.”

One thing that distinguishes Lakoff’s work from that of most psychologists has been his willingness to be evaluative. While most of “Moral Politics” was purely descriptive and analytical, he ultimately did take up the question of which model was more effective at producing the results it promised. Drawing on the parenting and child development literature, particularly the work of Diana Baumrind, Lakoff pointed out that authoritarian, Strict Father parenting does not produce the sort of healthy autonomous adults it promises. What does work is what Baumrind described as authoritative parenting, which sets high standards but is far more focused on engagement and nurturance than on judgment and punishment. This is the essence of Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent model — and it works. Locke was right, after all, about the fundamental goodness of humanity, which runs far deeper than our obvious flaws.

There are good reasons why Hibbing and others in political psychology abstain from evaluation, as he told Salon:

One of the things we try to do, and you may have picked this up in the exchange, is do our best to be fair to conservatives on this, and not make it sound like they’re just deeply flawed. So we tend to use language like ‘they’re paying more attention to these negative things’ and it’s not like they’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off. But this is something that gets to them, in a physical way, and a psychological way as well, so they think it’s something that needs due diligence. So they’re really paying attention, and they’re thinking of ways that they might mitigate these threats.

And yet, though this may account for where conservatives start from, it doesn’t match as well with where they end up at. Mobs of angry adults screaming at busloads of frightened children does not exactly equate with terms like “due diligence” and “mitigating threats.” Perhaps (at this point, anyway) political psychologists have their hands full just trying to get a fix on how to understand the origins of ideology, and we must look to others (sociologists, historians, linguists, etc.) for a broader view of where things lead to, and end. Hibbing continued in a similar vein:

This is based on the way that the world appears to them. And in that sense, it’s very real.

Here’s one example, liberals are always pointing out to conservatives, and especially gun advocates, that there’s a lot more harm done by gun accidents than people using guns. And I think to a conservative, that just doesn’t mean all that much, because the notion of the volitional evil human being coming after them, them not being able to defend themselves hits them in the gut in a way that liberals, I think don’t think understand.

So, if we can get back to those basic kinds of first premises, really, before we even have logic kick in, what is it that strikes you, what is it that you fear, what is it that motivates you, then I think we start to understand some of these deep differences between liberals and conservatives.

Earlier, I promised to return to an argument that Hibbing and his co-authors made, a group-selection argument for the benefit of ideological diversity, which runs in parallel with the reluctance to evaluate ideologies. I believe it’s a virtually self-evident argument — so far as our past is concerned. But it may prove to be more problematic for us today, and for our future. Here’s what they wrote in the paper:

A somewhat different theory that relies on group selection has been floated on occasion. It holds that societies benefit from having a mixture of those with high negativity biases and those with more modest negativity biases, of those open to out-groups and of those who are more guarded…. [T]he advantages of phenotypic mixtures would have to occur among the small-scale hunter-gatherer type societies that typified human existence for so long. Just as groups of spiders benefit from having a mix of social and asocial members and virtually all species benefit from having individuals with different immune systems, the argument is that human groups benefit from having members who are differentially responsive and attentive to negative stimuli. If this were true, the polarization that afflicts many modern democracies may be a vestige of the mixes of the behaviorally relevant, biological predispositions that worked well in small-scale societies.

This last point strikes me as extremely important — arguably more important than most of the scientists involved seem to realize. It is surely quite sensible to see ideological diversity as a good, but a particular mix that is good in one social circumstance may not be so good in another. It makes quite good sense that negativity bias was very helpful in our evolutionary history, when we lacked a deep cultural reservoir for coping with various ills. But in our modern — or postmodern — world, the particular mix needs to change; our need for novelty-seeking looks to be far more important for our survival and flourishing. The challenge of dealing with global warming is but one obvious — if overwhelming — example. More generally, Einstein once said that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, and so, for us, novelty-seeking may be even more essential to our survival than negativity bias was in the past.

In short, whether or not one ideology is better than another may itself be an empirical question, the answer to which varies over time. And at present, conservatism’s negatives clearly seem to be growing beyond all control. It may well be that psychology and physiology cannot and/or should not judge the efficacy of ideologies, but other scientists with a broader purview may well be required to. Our survival as a species could depend on it.

The fireworks today may be at the border — or in Gaza, or Ukraine — but meanwhile our goose is slowly being cooked by global warming, and conservatives have convinced themselves it’s all a liberal hoax. If that kind of thinking isn’t wrong, then what is?

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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