The Startling Truth About Conservatives?


More purely objective scientific research from the purlieus of America's universities finds that conservatives are more apt to "startle" at disgusting images and loud noises than are laid-back open-minded liberals. As Time describes the study involving 46 Nebraskans and published last week in Science:

Researchers shied away from using labels such as conservative and liberal in their study, but they concede that volunteers who registered a heightened sense of threat also tended to subscribe to conservative attitudes. "It's not that conservatives are 'fraidy-cats," says Kevin Smith, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and one of the study's co-authors. "It's that people who support socially protective policies — which, yes, can be interpreted as people taking a conservative position on those policies — are more sensitive to environmental threat."

To measure that sensitivity, researchers conducted two tests. In one, they showed volunteers a series of photos that included some threatening images — for example, a picture of a man with a spider on his face or an infected open wound — while measuring the electrical conductance of the volunteers' skin, a technique also used in polygraph testing. In a separate experiment, researchers subjected the volunteers to sudden bursts of loud white noise to test their startle reflexes, measured by sensors attached to the muscle below the eye that recorded how hard people blinked.

People who blinked harder than others and registered a heightened response to threat on the conductivity test tended to support the death penalty and military spending. People with a mellower startle response were more likely to support abortion rights and gun control. The study also looked at several broader political tendencies, including compromise (the willingness to yield to a middle-ground solution) and obedience (the tendency to follow a set path), and found that people who were more sensitive to threat were less amenable to the former and more inclined toward the latter.

National Geographic reported:

"[People displaying] 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," the team wrote in its report, to be published in the journal Science tomorrow.

"Individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War."

However, one suspiciously fair-minded critic wondered how the results would have been interpreted had they come out the other way:

Duke University political scientist Evan Charney said that such studies run the risk of "pathologizing conservatism … and I say that as a left-wing liberal."

The study could be read as, "Conservatives are a hell of a lot more threatened than liberals," Charney said.

"But if the results had come out the other way, we might be reading [interpretations] that liberals are more attentive than conservatives or more concerned than conservatives."

reason has been covering research into the psychopathology of conservativism for some time.