Want to Understand Republicans? First Understand Evolution

From global warming denial to claims about "death panels" to baseless fears about inflation, it often seems there are so many factually wrong claims on the political right that those who make them live in a different reality. Maybe theydo.
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Earlier this week, yesterday's Republican primary champ Rick Santorum called global warming a "hoax." Yes, a hoax. In other words, apparently scientists are in a global cabal to needlessly alarm us about what's happening with the climate -- and why would they do such a thing?

Well, presumably to help advance an economy-choking agenda of global governance -- or perhaps, to line their own pockets with government research grants. Seriously.

Santorum's absurd global warming conspiracy theory is the kind of thing that absolutely outrages liberals -- but to my mind, they really ought to be getting used to it by now. From global warming denial to claims about "death panels" to baseless fears about inflation, it often seems there are so many factually wrong claims on the political right that those who make them live in a different reality.

So here's an idea: Maybe they actually do. And maybe we can look to science itself -- albeit, ironically, a body of science whose fundamental premise (the theory of evolution) most Republicans deny -- to help understand why it is that they view the world so differently.

In my last piece here, I commented on the growing body of research suggesting that the difference between liberals and conservatives is not merely ideological in nature. Rather, it seems more deeply rooted in psychology and the brain -- with ideology itself emerging as a kind of by-product of fundamentally different patterns of perceiving and responding to the world that spill over into many aspects of life, not just the political.

To back this up, I listed seven published studies showing a consistent set of physiological, brain, and "attentional" differences between liberals and conservatives. Later on my blog, I listed no less than eleven studies showing genetic differences as well.

Last month, yet another scientific paper on this subject came out -- from the National Science Foundation-supported political physiology laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The work, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (free version here), goes further still in helping us understand how biological and physiological differences between liberals and conservatives may lead to very different patterns of political behavior.

As the new research suggests, conservatism is largely a defensive ideology -- and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments. By contrast, liberalism can be thought of as an exploratory ideology -- much more appealing to people who go through life trying things out and seeking the new.

All of this is reflected, in a measurable way, in the physiological responses that liberals and conservatives show to emotionally evocative but otherwise entirely apolitical images -- and also to images of politicians, either on their own side or from across the aisle.

To show as much, the Nebraska-Lincoln researchers had liberals and conservatives look at varying combinations of images that were meant to excite different emotions. There were images that caused fear and disgust -- a spider crawling on a person's face, maggots in an open wound -- but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit. The researchers also mixed in images of liberal and conservative politicians -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

While they did all of this, the scientists measured the subjects' "skin conductance" -- the moistening of their sweat glands, an indication of sympathetic nervous system arousal -- as well as where their eyes went first and how long they stayed there.

The difference was striking: Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or "attentional" patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and spent more time fixating on them. Liberals, in contrast, were less quickly drawn to negative images -- and spent more time looking at positive ones.

Similar things have been found before -- but the big breakthrough in the new study was showing that these tendencies carried over perfectly to the different sides' responses to images of politicians. Conservatives had stronger rapid fire physiological responses to images of Bill and Hillary Clinton -- apparently perceiving them much as they perceive a threat. By contrast, liberals showed stronger responses to the same two politicians, apparently perceiving them much as they perceive an appetitive or positive stimulus.

As the authors concluded, "The aversive in life is more physiologically and cognitively tangible to some people and they tend to gravitate to the political right."

What does this mean?

To my mind, it means it is high time to grapple with a fact that we like to conveniently ignore: the left and the right are deeply asymmetrical actors in our politics. If we could acknowledge this, it might explain an awful lot.

For instance, consider a few observations that seem to take on new resonance in light of the latest research:

The Tea Party hates President Obama much more intensely than liberals love him. Or to state things less judgmentally, there is an "intensity gap," as the Pew Research Center puts it, between the right's political base and that of the left.

As of last May, for instance, 84 percent of staunch conservatives strongly disapproved of Obama's job performance, but only 64 percent of solid liberals approved of it. Meanwhile, 70 percent of staunch conservatives viewed Obama very unfavorably, but only 45 percent of solid liberals had very favorable views of him.

What's going on here? To conservatives, the new research implies, President Obama may literally be an aversive and threatening stimuli (or, perhaps, a disgust-evoking one). They fixate on him, and respond to him, physiologically, in a defensive fashion.

For liberals, in contrast, Obama was surely once very appealing, perhaps circa 2008, and excited positive and appetitive emotions. But they've since grown bored or disillusioned with him and gone on to sample many other things in the environment -- like Occupy Wall Street -- always exploring and searching for the new. (All of which, incidentally, may translate into a very serious electoral disadvantage this fall.)

Conservatives opt for Fox News much more strongly than liberals opt for any single outlet. In a 2007 "selective exposure" study by Stanford researcher Shanto Iyengar, it was found Republicans overwhelmingly chose to read fake articles labeled with the "Fox News" logo, but chose a story running under a CNN or NPR logo just 10 percent of the time. By contrast, Democrats in the study didn't like Fox, but also didn't show a strong affinity for a particular alternative news source -- they seemed to sample information sources more widely.

What's going on here? One possibility is that in a political environment filled with perceived threats, Fox helps conservatives feel secure by giving them ideologically consistent and reassuring information. Alternatively, perhaps Fox's constant negative framing of liberals, and of other news sources, appeals to or even excites conservatives, whipping them up for political battle.

Either way, liberals just don't seem to need an outlet like Fox. Again, they're busy chasing after the new and different -- out exploring, rather than hunkering down.

The big question lying behind all this, of course, is why some people would have stronger and quicker responses than others to that which is perceived as negative and threatening (and disgusting). Or alternatively, why some people -- liberals -- would be less threat aversive than others. For as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers note: "given the compelling evolutionary logic for organisms to be overly sensitive to aversive stimuli, it may be that those on the political left are more out of step with adaptive behaviors."

And thus are we drawn to the only context in which we can make any sense of any of this -- the understanding that we human primates evolved. As such, these rapid-fire responses to aversive stimuli are something we share with other animals -- a core part of our life-saving biological wiring.

And apparently, they differ in strength and intensity from person to person -- in turn triggering political differences in modern democracies. Who knew?

For now, I'll leave it to others to speculate on the root causes of these differences. But whatever those may be, the perceptual gap between left and right certainly seems less than "adaptive" at the present moment. It may be the fault of biology that we're now misfiring so very badly -- clashing in ways that, as with the debt ceiling fiasco, could have gravely harmed everybody in America, regardless of their particular ideology.

The Nebraska-Lincoln scientists interpret their results as a powerful argument in favor of greater political tolerance and understanding -- and I agree with them. Politics isn't war, and it isn't zero sum. It requires negotiation and compromise. Surely our public debates should be guided by something more than threat responses and fight-or-flight.

So how do we get beyond our political biology? Well, the implication for liberals seems obvious: If they want to fare better politically, they need to learn to go against their instincts and stay focused and committed.

And the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we'd have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.

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