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Mooney writes: "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."

Before the Colorado primary Rick Santorum claimed that climate change was a 'hoax' and rode his anti-scientific proclamation to a clean sweep of the Tuesday primaries. (photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Before the Colorado primary Rick Santorum claimed that climate change was a 'hoax' and rode his anti-scientific proclamation to a clean sweep of the Tuesday primaries. (photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)



Want to Understand Republicans? First Understand Evolution

Chris Mooney, Reader Supported News

08 February 12

 

arlier 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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+52 # pernsey 2012-02-08 18:03
The right wing nut jobs are crazy! They say what they think people want to hear instead of what is true or fact based. Its amazing how they can spout a load of nonsense and people still will vote for their idiocy!
 
 
+41 # Rick Levy 2012-02-08 20:11
Republicans, most of whom are conservative Christian,s won't accept the theory of evolution even though it's in their best interests do so. See
http://www.4enlightenment.blogspot.com/2012/02/caution-belief-in-creationism-may-be.html
 
 
+38 # Texas Aggie 2012-02-09 00:00
"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."

Being sensitive to aversive stimuli isn't the only type of behavior that is adaptive. Checking out new things in the environment also has adaptive value. Learning is one of the major things that is responsible for the evolutionary success that humans have had in the last 100,000 years.

Another possible hypothesis is that right wingers are adapted to a constant environment where nothing changes and any learning about anything new will be minimal. Left wingers are adapted to an environment in flux where you need to know about the changes if you're going to survive. You tell me what sort of an environment we're in now.
 
 
+16 # angelfish 2012-02-09 00:15
Evolution has worked and is a fact for everyone EXCEPT ReTHUGlicans. They are forever locked into the Cro-Magnon Era with their heads firmly implanted up their Alimentary Canals!
 
 
+35 # Majikman 2012-02-09 00:44
It's easy to understand why the right can't accept evolution...the y never took part in it.
 
 
+22 # ladybird53 2012-02-09 00:52
Uh, sounds like the author has been reading Susan Cain's book - Quiet: The power of introverts. Actually, he is using her ideas to deftly provide some interesting analysis. The 'right' does, indeed seem to be largely comprised of high-reactive types ... Fearful of change ... Fearful of new ideas ... And they hunker down - literally in bunkers for the nuttier ones - in the silly false comfort of evangelical religion or Fox channel.
For the left to temper their impulse to seek new and novel ways of expressing their position is a waste of energy - it is impossible to reach the right in that way. Reframing the arguments, ala George Lakoff, would be more effective.
 
 
+37 # Bill Clements 2012-02-09 01:45
In other words, conservatives, being fear-based, react to life by contracting, whereas liberals, being more open and positive, react to life with joie de vivre.
 
 
+15 # 666 2012-02-09 05:48
I think the key issue is not conservative sensitivity to (potentially) threatening things, but the MANIPULATION by the GOP and its minions (eg fox) of things so that some of them appear threatening. we might have genetic instincts for snake/spider avoidance, but not for avoiding things in our own best interests -- that's a learned/taught behavior.

When the political and advertising research folks meet up with the psychologists and the medical researchers, they're going to find out that alot of this stuff has pretty much been in play for the past 30+ years (at least).
 
 
+19 # RLF 2012-02-09 07:01
People are Republicans for emotional reasons. They can not be talked sense to. This is the constant mistake made by Democrats...tha t they can just tell the republicans the facts and they will change their view...but they have to appeal to the troops EMOTIONALLY or they get the La La La...I can't hear you. The class argument resounds with people because they FEEL it is true.

Republicans have been given license to not believe science by all of the garbage science out there selling bad drugs, etc. that is never policed by the science community...dis crediting all science. Want to make sciences credible again, start by cleaning out the bought and paid for scientists creating junk and death is a good start!
 
 
+13 # MidwestTom 2012-02-09 07:08
Nothing highlights the differences in this country more than Santorum's wins on Tuesday. He probably couldn't get 20% of the vote in the Blue states, and might actually carry the red states. I think that Obama or anybody else will eat him alive in a debate, he just does not look or sound Presidential. The weakness in the Republican field tells me that the they really do not want the Presidency. Obama will have $1.0 Billion to spend, and do not think that the will need it all. Let's hope he spreads it around to help other candidates.
 
 
-14 # Martintfre 2012-02-09 07:24
Real science does not consist of cooking the books, making unique statistical tricks to hide undesired results, quashing dissenting views -- unless your talking political science. But what do I know I only have a science degree (not political)
 
 
+22 # ABen 2012-02-09 10:40
Martin, so do you accept the position of the Union of Concerned Scientists on global warming? The 2000+ members also have degrees in science, many are Nobel recipients, and seem to think global warming is a serious problem.
 
 
+5 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-09 20:19
Glad someone else knows of them, Biodiversity group also has lots of proof as does the WEB if you want to research

You either want to move up as was intended or you sink in your own mire.
 
 
0 # Bruce Gruber 2012-02-09 08:17
The fact that we CAN'T evolve beyond where we are (ooops, 'where we have always been') is certainly reassuring ... or is it disappointing? Anyhow, we don't need to worry because what used to be is 'now and ever shall be' because there is no such thing as evolution, RIGHT? But why should it be necessary to get 'back to the good old days?
I am LEFT ... with dismay and forced to acknowledge a degree of confusion !
 
 
+6 # Sensible1 2012-02-09 09:40
Republicans/Con servatives are about whatever the Democrats/Liber als are for. Thats why they rarely have anything constructive to submit. Their childlike behavior causes them to respond with ridiculous commentary and solutions, but they know unless they represent an opposite point of view, they will cease to exist as a viable choice. If it were not for liberals seeking common sense and fairness for our society, there would be no Republican party.
 
 
+10 # reiverpacific 2012-02-09 11:12
I'm inclined to take "Martinfire's" overall and somewhat cynical view of this kind of Science -it's a bit too simplistic.
I tend to look at people of all stripes from a "joy-misery" sliding-scale perspective -OK call it positive-negati ve more rationally, and there is another word very close to the spectrum of these things; how much rationalization or "spin" can be laid into the message people get.
If this sounds like I'm disappearing up my own keester, sorry: I don't have degrees in science nor phsycology.
I like the American Indian attitude to any socio-political decision or action; regard it's effect for seven generations to come.
Basically, the biggest difference I see in the US Conservative vs Liberal debate (these terms themselves are open to much examination) is that Liberals (let's say "Progressives" for the purpose of this post) make proposals, have or seek actual ideas or solutions and try to find alternatives or if you like, have an element of creativity to their positions. The current crop of Conservatives (let's say "quasi-Fascists ") have no ideas and very narrow perspectives almost exclusively dedicated to finding ways to oppose and discredit ANY ideas from the progressive side, focussing on the opiated minds of the the owner-media-ste ered gullible gawkers who pitch their votes once every four years towards the most plausible and least thought-provoki ng sensationalist yapper.
 
 
+1 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-09 20:26
They might not be all that narrow in perspective but want to keep the Mass in it whether here or any other Country.
People want a Savior, they willingly adopt whoever is convenient.
They despise us for Questioning Authority. We are all Heathens/Hippie s/Terrorists. The leaders keep it that way to keep them in line and to get rid of us. They even get the Religious Cult to back them. Rid of us is getting more and more against what the adopted God allows.
The followers do not know how to digest that, therefore blame the opposite Power to be, it is easier and they can sleep at night. They are their own fiction novels and movies whether sci fi or horror they are in their own Rocky Mt Picture Show, playing the same part over and over for the Audience of Dictators
 
 
0 # angelfish 2012-02-09 23:25
Hey, reiver, you took the words right out of my mouth! GREAT comment!
 
 
+10 # Sensible1 2012-02-09 12:10
Republicans/Con servatives are about the opposite of whatever the Democrats/Liber als are for. Thats why they rarely have anything constructive to submit. Their childlike behavior causes them to respond with ridiculous commentary and solutions, but they know unless they represent an opposite point of view, they will cease to exist as a viable choice. If it were not for liberals seeking common sense and fairness for our society, there would be no Republican party.
 
 
+3 # jwb110 2012-02-09 14:42
Maybe when Rick Santorum sees his own children gasping for the last breathable oxygen on the planet then he'll recant.
 
 
+1 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-09 20:27
Nope...He signed away all that years ago here in Pa. I imagine his kids will be worse than him. Destiny.
To revolt too much only cripples us to become what we revolted against.
 
 
-19 # Martintfre 2012-02-09 14:52
//Later on my blog, I listed no less than eleven studies showing genetic differences as well.//

you mean there is a parasite gene and we can detect democrats early?
 
 
+11 # Catman 2012-02-09 15:31
Quoting Martintfre:
//Later on my blog, I listed no less than eleven studies showing genetic differences as well.//

you mean there is a parasite gene and we can detect democrats early?

And trolls even earlier!
 
 
+10 # Bruce Gruber 2012-02-09 15:39
There WOULD be a Republican Party if it included Eisenhower, Javits, either of the Rockefellers, LaGuardia, La Follitt, Ford, Dole, Percy, Powell, Chafee, Dewey or any of so many others.
Instead of a political association of diverse experiences, interest, backgrounds and concepts, the present right wing conservatives are a much more uniform militant tribal agglomeration of the remains of the Democrat Dixiecrats and States Righters and those radical Republicans who have opposed every aspect of the New Deal from day one. Like the Crusaders, the Taliban or the Puritans, today's Republicans seem founded on rock-ribbed faith and militant 'ends justify means' amorality. Social conservatives decry abortion on behalf of life but celebrate capital punishment with applause. And, today, they HATE President Obama for a policy that would guarantee insurance for women's' health related issues.
Government is described by Republicans as some separate entity intent only on expansion, wealth transfer, and denial of individual rights. They do not seem to comprehend government as an expression, democratically chosen by the citizenry, to implement actions to address common priorities - at least not when they do not have full control.
To Democrats, as I see it, when Republicans DO have full control, they achieve depressions, start wars of empire and transfer the nation's (tax) wealth and posterity to the 1% who select and enable their representatives . But that's just me.
 
 
-10 # dandevries 2012-02-09 19:42
One evident flaw in the research cited involves self-identified "liberals" reaction to photos of the Clintons. Liberalism is doggone dead at this point. Meaningless as a classification. Check out the poll numbers on how many "liberals" approve of Obama's handling of Guantanamo and the drones.

Most self-identified "liberals" are nothing more than low-intensity fascists at this point.

Personally, I would register disgust, although briefly, at photographs of either of the Clintons. Obama, only a little more briefly.
 
 
+6 # pernsey 2012-02-09 20:37
As most repugs you conveniently forget about Bushes 8 years of idiocy!
 
 
+2 # Dale 2012-02-10 09:30
These guys, and some of gals too, are sorely lacking in human sensibility. They are violent, dangerous people. They are Zombies. You dont commpromise with gross immorality of Zombies.
 
 
+6 # nickmadnus 2012-02-10 12:41
Liberals are more relaxed because their worldview is conffirmed by reality. Conservatives are uptight because they need Fox News to confirm theirs.
 
 
0 # futhark 2012-02-11 07:22
"The researchers also mixed in images of liberal and conservative politicians - Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush."

Everyone on this list would conventionally be classified as a "conservative", although I never did figure out what the heck they were conserving.
 
 
+2 # giraffee2012 2012-02-11 17:22
Without reading the article - looking at the picture (eyes weak - so wasn't sure which finger was pointing) - I simply thought "Can this person truly deny evolution publically?" Then I read the article and realized "his body may have evolved from a 4 legged thing - but where is his mind?" And his children will believe .....

VOTE in 2012 - be sure to check the right BOXES: Pity anyone who votes GOP/TP bc they will go down with the rest of us as our homes, jobs, assets trickle UP to the 1%.

Support Bernie Sanders' bill to amend the Constitution to define a "person" / "Get the $$ out of buying our govt" ---
 
 
+1 # Lucius 2012-02-12 15:07
Creationist, christian, republican: the trifecta of blinkered ignorance.

This article is further evidence, if indeed more is needed, that fundamentalism is a corrupting virus of the mind from which everything follows.

Red pill v Blue pill? They'll take the Blue pill every time.
 
 
0 # GravityWave 2012-02-12 16:14
A black president brought the trogs out with the help of the old failures still in power as the world moved passed them.

Never marry a conservative! Its taking too long to get the Neanderthals out of the gene pool.

But truly, it is no laughing matter. Be sure to vote.
 

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