Science Explains The Difference Between Conservatives and Liberals

Filed in Science and Health by on July 19, 2009

I would like to point you to this really interesting article at Gawker of all places, called Scientists Explain Why People Vote For Republicans. The tone of the article is funny and tongue-in-cheek but it points to three real scientific studies, discussed below.

The first was a study by John Alford and published in the journal Science (paid subscription needed for original). This study (Newsweek link describing the study) found that people who described themselves as conservatives reacted more strongly to pictures of threatening images, and the stronger the reaction the more conservative the person described their own political beliefs.

The results seem to suggest that our ideas about the world are shaped by deep, involuntary reactions to the things we see. As evidence, the study found that greater sensitivity to the images was linked to more fervent support for a conservative agenda—including opposition to immigration, gun control, gay marriage, abortion rights and pacifism, and support for military spending, warrantless searches, the Iraq War, school prayer and the truth of the Bible. In other words, on the level of physiological reactions in the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may = spiders = gay marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces. Before liberals start cheering, however, they don’t come off much more noble or nuanced. They were less sensitive to the threatening images, and more likely to support open immigration policies, pacifism and gun control. But according to the research, that’s hardly desirable, since it suggests that liberals may display mammal-on-a-hot-rock languor in the face of legitimate threats. “They actually don’t show any difference in physical response between a picture of a spider on someone’s face and a picture of a bunny,” Alford tells NEWSWEEK.

I guess this would explain why Republicans spend a lot of time telling us what they’re scared of and perhaps why anti-abortion activists spend a lot of time making signs with pictures of bloody fetuses.

The second study is about the “backfire effect.” The backfire effect is that when one tries to refute misinformation it ends up reinforcing it. Blogger Brendan Nyhan has a paper on a study (warning: PDF). Interestingly, this was only present in self-described conservatives and the source of the refutation didn’t matter (whether it was Fox News or the New York Times).

The most upsetting and alarming research? Probably Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s backfire effect study. In that, the political scientists took two groups of volunteers and gave them the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq was a threat and had weapons of mass destruction.

One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

I think this explains the birthers pretty well. It also reinforces my cynicism about politics and zombie lies. It doesn’t matter how much a lie is debunked, it’s always out there. It also shows that you really can’t win if an opponent spreads a lie, ignoring it just proves the rumor and debunking it proves it too.

The third study concerns the ideology of liberals and conservatives. It showed that liberals and moderates have different moral codes. As Gawker explains it:

Liberals and college students define morality as “how we treat each other,” conservatives attach more significance to “supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” Liberals recognize fairness and care as important moral virtues, conservatives add to that loyalty, respect for authority, and duty.

To me, this sounds a lot like the George Lakoff explanation of framing and cognitive differences between conservatives and liberals. As Lakoff has explained, conservatives and liberals both have entirely consistent but different world views (he describes it in “strict father” and “nurturing parent”) and that most people have elements of both in their own thinking.

The authors of the scientific papers point out, and I agree, that defining the differences in the way people think does not mean one way of thinking is superior to another way of thinking. I also think that this shows that if it seems like we’re talking past each other we probably are. Communication is an important tool and I think we need to be well aware of the audience we’re speaking to when we are trying to communicate.

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Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

Comments (10)

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  1. polodo says:

    What about those of us who simply spy a lump like fat Jason and quickly declare ourselves in opposition to WHATEVER that pustule stands for?

  2. cassandra_m says:

    Republicans spend a lot of time telling us what they’re scared of and perhaps why anti-abortion activists spend a lot of time making signs with pictures of bloody fetuses.

    And this may be the only reason why McCain got alot of pushback on the amazing number of lies and crazyness that came from his campaign. At some point they just went overboard on the fear card and they looked more like a marketing junket for a horror movie than a political campaign. And one reason why RUDY! was a frontrunner for so long — I think that our media sees fearful messaging as tough and meaningful when it is anything but.

  3. callerRick says:

    Conservatives, like the Founders, being of independent mind, don’t take to that ring through the nose that ‘liberals’ so readily accept. Big government and freedom cannot coexist. ‘Liberal’ = cattle.

  4. jason330 says:

    I guess Rick didn’t read the post.

  5. cassandra_m says:

    You can’t claim to be of independent mind when you repeat the crap your radio and TV tell you and pretend you just thought it up.

  6. Phil says:

    I think he was referring to this part of the post:

    “…liberals may display mammal-on-a-hot-rock languor in the face of legitimate threats.”

  7. Free Radical says:

    This TED video provided some extra insight. Liberals and conservatives don’t differ much on scales of Justice or Protection from Harm, but differ strikingly on scales of Purity, Authority and Ingroup Loyalty.

  8. Here’s the video:

  9. cassandra_m says:

    OK, now that was very cool indeed. Thanks FR and UI!