How the other half votes

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, 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


  1. Very interesting. These studies are obviously confronting severe semantic difficulties.

    For example, the dictionary lists two definitions for politics. One is the science and ethics of governance, which is what these studies focus on. The other definition is “the management of a political party,” which is where reality is at. Principles unfortunately play almost no role in the practice of politics. The difference between a conservative and a republican is that a republican has a low facility for understanding reality (they are morons).

    And the politics of the church-going Christian survey is not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they, again, have no facility for understanding reality (they are morons). The fact that some of them are innately conservative and some are innately liberal doesn’t matter because Americans’ voting patterns are based almost entirely on an infantile understanding of a bunch of lies. Or to put it another way, Christian doctrine is that God created the universe. Order and emotional fulfillment are the most incidental parts of this. If God doesn’t exist: THERE IS NO UNIVERSE. No epistemologically consistent Christian could give any other answer. The intelligent design morons aren’t saying that without God, there would be no order or happiness. They are saying that without God, there would be no talking apes (at least they’re consistent). Most respondents are probably inadvertently answering the question: what would your life be like if you didn’t know about God? Another way to state the
    results from this study: Christians give two different sets of wrong answers to this question which is way above their ability level. Doesn’t invalidate the study by any stretch, but it sure changes the take home message.

    Another semantic problem: patriotism is not what conservatives are in favor of, but they don’t know that because they haven’t consulted a dictionary. “Nationalism” is the word for the idea that your nation is so superior to others that it has the right to wage preemptive war. Patriotism is the idea that your nation is so damn spiffy that it’s worth not scuttling it in a series of ill-begotten nationalistic wars. Again, a facility for understanding reality would make it clear to conservatives that nationalism is bad for patriots.

    And another semantic problem: morality has absolutely nothing to do with groupthink, loyalty, authority, etc. Morality is _the alternative_ to those things. Those things are just evolution. Morality is judging by the standard of right (dictionary again). Evolution is judging by the standard of might. The society that stands together in a fight may live longer, but that is just a question of might. Again, morality is explicitly defined as being unrelated to the expediencies of survival. The authors of that article may say “if you believe that, then you must be a liberal.” I would say that it means I have a decent command of abstract reasoning. I think there are many conservatives who have a decent command of abstract reasoning, but they’re just statistical noise to this study. On the other hand, maybe there’s some suitably sophisticated context in which “might makes right” can be a foundation for morality. They should pose this question as well, as a basic moron-or-not test. If they say groupthink
    is morality but might doesn’t make right, they’re morons, and that data point can be correlated with the others.

    Sidebar: if the existence of an all-powerful entity is the foundation of one’s morals then one probably *does* believe inexorably that might makes right.

    I recognize that from a psychology/sociology/political science perspective, these are interesting questions to ask, and the results are potentially interesting. It’s just a little bit frustrating because 21st century information society’s future is being determined not by principles or morality, but rather by the populace’s near-universal lack of a facility for understanding reality. These experiments treat talking apes like black boxes. It’s interesting that by submitting a fairly random and meaningless set of inputs, most people will produce one of two fairly random and meaningless sets of output, but somehow I am having a hard time finding meaning in any of the involved words. But I suppose tilting at classification systems divorced from meaning is sadly the only factually rigorous option available to the social sciences.

    We’re asking a bunch of non-thinkers what they think about various topics. The fact that the answers tend to fall into two sets is just a red herring, a distraction from the fact that they aren’t thinking.

    To sum up: these studies, to be broadly applicable, have focused on two groups: moronic conservatives and moronic liberals. I suppose from a scientific perspective it’s rarely worthwhile to generalize from studies on aberrant groups, but wouldn’t it be a little bit interesting if they broke up their data so you could see scientific conservatives and scientific liberals as more than just statistical noise disrupting their study of morons?

    If they did this, they would probably discover that our blogmistress is startled easily by loud noises, is obsessed enough with protection to lock her door at night, and tends to vote (perhaps reluctantly) for Democrats.

    Yeah, the Obama-McCain debate is fresh in my memory. How could you tell?

    “Looks like we got ourselves a reader.”

  2. Hi Mary, very interesting post. And I almost completely agree with commenter Greg on this one.

    Especially on the one re: patriotism. I think Peter Jennings (who, I think, was an ok journalist) said it best: “Patriotism is (like) loving your family whether it is good or bad, while always striving to make it better. Nationalism simply insists ‘Hey my family is the best’..”. Isn’t that right on.

    I was bit confused by the first paragraph’s findings. I think I am very sensitive to sudden noise, etc. but yet, I am very progressive in my thinking, and support all the qualities the former group is supposed to support :-) I guess that ties in with Greg’s take that it’s a bad idea to generalize based on moronic conservatives and moronic liberals, neither of which I am part of :-)

    And oh yes, I’ve been reading too much about the Obama-McCain crap to be sane, and not angry.

    PS: Mary, I saw you in Laughing Planet a couple of weeks back, and said your name out loud a few times but I could not get your attention.

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