I’ve run across several things lately about the psychology and even the physiology of people’s political beliefs. For instance, this press release from EurekAlert describes some work that studied 46 adults with strong political views and examined their political beliefs as well as their physiological responses to disturbing images and unexpected loud sounds. The team of US researchers found a notable difference between those who reacted more strongly to the images and those who did not. (The paper, Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits, was published in the September 19, 2008, issue of Science.) To quote from the abstract: “. . . 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.”
The abstract goes on to describe the policies favored by the former as protective of the existing social order. I find the concept of protectiveness interesting in this context, because gun control and pacifism can also be considered protective, but of individual lives and well-being rather than of the social order. Another press release, this one from the National Science Foundation, goes into a little more detail, and describes the strong reactors as believing that the biggest threat to the well-being of those they care about is other people, while the other group sees more risk in technology or inanimate objects (like guns). This was a small study, and obviously there’s a lot more to political views than just your physiology (remember the old joke about how a conservative is just a liberal who’s been mugged?), but this is a very interesting starting point.
Another study, this one by two psychologists at Northwestern, looked at the political beliefs of 128 church-attending Christians. The researchers asked the church-goers what life would be like if there were no god. The politically conservative among them were more likely to envision a world of chaos, where social institutions break down due to uncontrolled human behavior. The politically liberal, on the other hand, thought the world would be empty, barren, and lacking in deep emotional experiences. The disparity suggests that the two groups are motivated by a different set of fears and hopes. This press release from EurekAlert has more information. The article, What if there were no God? Politically conservative and liberal Christians imagine their lives without faith, is in press in the Journal of Research in Personality.
Finally, over at Edge.org, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written an essay about different conceptions of morality and what they mean in terms of Republicans, Democrats, and the American political landscape. This follows up on some research I wrote about awhile back that looks at five different dimensions of morality that are concerned with preventing harm and caring for others; fairness and reciprocity; loyalty to the group you belong to; authority and respect; and purity and sanctity. In a nutshell, political liberals tend to base their ideas of morality on the first two more than on the other three, while political conservatives are more attuned to all five. (You can see where you fall in this framework at YourMorals.org.)