Threat and Politics: Are Political Views Rooted in Biology?

  by  |  October 31st, 2008  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Featured

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If you got into an argument this election season with someone who supported the other guy, chances are neither of you won. Maybe it’s not just stubbornness. New research has found that people with strong opposing political views might also have very different physical responses to threat.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: John Hibbing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Produced by Sunita Reed– Edited by Christopher Bergendorff and Sunita Reed
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

In the Blink of an Eye

While previous research has linked people’s political views to their experiences while growing up, a new study suggests a correlation between political attitudes and physiological responses to threat.


Read Brad Kloza’s personal thoughts on this story, as well as the list of questions used in the study, in Unfiltered: Threat & Political Views.

“Everybody’s eager to cast aspersions on the ideology with which they do not agree, and the message we’d really like to send and that we think is appropriate, in light of these findings, is that there are simply differences,” says the study’s lead author, political scientist John Hibbing of University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hibbing and colleagues first identified people with strong political attitudes, regardless of what their attitudes were. They did this by conducting a random telephone survey in Lincoln, Nebraska. They then invited these people to participate in a lab study. During the first visit, the volunteers completed a survey assessing whether they favored matters like the death penalty, the Iraq War, and warrantless searches, among others — what Hibbing calls “socially protective policies” or policies that “protect the social order.” Hibbing defines these threats as both external, as well as internal (“norm-violating”).

Since the researchers did not include questions about economic policies, they say they do not “label” the collection of policy positions in the survey to be either “liberal” or “conservative.”

Two months later the volunteers were tested on their physical response to threats, in two ways. One measure was the change in a person’s skin moisture in response to startling images like a spider on a person’s face, a wound with maggots, and an injured person with a bloody face. The other measure was how hard a person blinked in response to a sudden loud noise.

They found that those who supported these issues also showed stronger threat responses. The opposite was true of those who did not startle easily.
“Those people who responded less vigorously — who did not blink as firmly and who did not see a skin conductance spike in response to a threatening visual image — these are individuals who are more likely to embrace foreign aid, to be less enthusiastic about defense spending, to be less likely to be less likely to support torture,” says Hibbing.

Hibbing is quick to point out that there is no right or wrong response to threat.

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“It makes sense to respond in a vigorous fashion to a threat,” says Hibbing. “But it also makes sense not to over-respond to threats. So it’s not the case where one type of response is normal or preferable or that one response is deficient. I think the real message here is that there are differences across people and these differences run pretty deep.”

Hibbing does not know the reason for the correlation, but plans to do brain imaging studies to look deeper into the basis of political views.

“We’re hoping that people might be a little more understanding of those with whom they disagree in that those individuals are probably experiencing the world or at least experiencing threats differently than the people on your side,” Hibbing adds.

PUBLICATION: Science, September 19, 2008
RESEARCH FUNDED BY: The National Science Foundation and the ManTech Corporation

Elsewhere on the Web:
Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings
The Moral Psychology of Politics
International Society of Political Psychology

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  1. Unfiltered: Threat & Political Views | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 3:14 pm (#)

    [...] Threat and Politics- New research has found that people with strong opposing political views might also have very different physical responses to threat. [...]

  2. MartaK says:

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    Sounds to me like this article is saying the GOP is made up of 'Fraidy-Cats!

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    It's too bad we can't listen and debate various without having to be 'right' or change the other person's mind.

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