Americans are very afraid (half of us anyway)

September 19, 2008

The BBC reports on a study in Science. Researchers selected a small study group (46 people) in Nebraska (Why not Peoria?) Those in the group with strong conservative and liberal opinions on the hot button issues of our day were sub selected. The researchers then tested the subjects’ reactions to physical fear.

Instead of explaining our political divide by economic circumstances, education, etc., maybe it can be explained by our physiological reaction to fear stimuli?

Their research, published in the journal Science, indicates that people who are sensitive to fear or threat are likely to support a right wing agenda.

Those who perceived less danger in a series of images and sounds were more inclined to support liberal policies.

Since the country in the latest polls show a dead even or dead even split between McCain and Obama supporters, could we make the leap that half of us are afraid, very afraid? Evangelicals are a group most staunchly conservative, with their strong faith why would they be so afraid? I’m speculating…

The images included pictures of a frightened man with a large spider on his face and an open wound with maggots in it. The subjects were also startled with loud noises on occasion.

You then would need to delve into why people vary in their physiological responses, since there is a strong correlation between geography and community with political views. As they say, more studies are needed.

ScienceNOW has an article describing the research and possible interpretations.

Here’s the abstract (you have to register and $$$ to read the whole thing online):

Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits

Douglas R. Oxley,1* Kevin B. Smith,1* John R. Alford,2 Matthew V. Hibbing,3 Jennifer L. Miller,1 Mario Scalora,4 Peter K. Hatemi,5 John R. Hibbing1{dagger}

Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals’ experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

1 Department of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA.
2 Department of Political Science, Rice University, Houston, TX 77251, USA.
3 Department of Political Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.
4 Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA.
5 Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Richmond, VA 23298, USA.

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