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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 4

Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives

Psychological insights might tone down the bitter feuding between Democrats and Republicans
donkey/elephant inkblot, republican and democratic party inkblot



ELLEN WEINSTEIN

BLUE STATE, red state. Big government, big business. Gay rights, fetal rights. The United States is riven by the politics of extremes. To paraphrase humor columnist Dave Barry, Republicans think of Democrats as godless, unpatriotic, Volvo-driving, France-loving, elitist latte guzzlers, whereas Democrats dismiss Republicans as ignorant, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling religious fanatics. An exaggeration, for sure, but the reality is still pretty stark. Congress is in a perpetual stalemate because of the two parties' inability to find middle ground on practically anything.

According to the experts who study political leanings, liberals and conservatives do not just see things differently. They are different—in their personalities and even their unconscious reactions to the world around them. For example, in a study published in January, a team led by psychologist Michael Dodd and political scientist John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln found that when viewing a collage of photographs, conservatives' eyes unconsciously lingered 15 percent longer on repellent images, such as car wrecks and excrement—suggesting that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to assessing potential threats.

Meanwhile examining the contents of 76 college students' bedrooms, as one group did in a 2008 study, revealed that conservatives possessed more cleaning and organizational items, such as ironing boards and calendars, confirmation that they are orderly and self-disciplined. Liberals owned more books and travel-related memorabilia, which conforms with previous research suggesting that they are open and novelty-seeking.

“These are not superficial differences. They are psychologically deep,” says psychologist John Jost of New York University, a co-author of the bedroom study. “My hunch is that the capacity to organize the political world into left or right may be a part of human nature.”

Although conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different, hints are emerging about how to bring them together—or at least help them coexist. In his recent book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the N.Y.U. Stern School of Business argues that liberals and conservatives need not revile one another as immoral on issues such as birth control, gay marriage or health care reform. Even if these two worldviews clash, they are equally grounded in ethics, he writes. Meanwhile studies by Jost and others suggest that political views reside on a continuum that is mediated in part by universal human emotions such as fear. Under certain circumstances, everyone can shift closer to the middle—or drift further apart.

The Fear Factor

Psychologists have found that conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions. “Conservatism, apparently, helps to protect people against some of the natural difficulties of living,” says social psychologist Paul Nail of the University of Central Arkansas. “The fact is we don't live in a completely safe world. Things can and do go wrong. But if I can impose this order on it by my worldview, I can keep my anxiety to a manageable level.”

Anxiety is an emotion that waxes and wanes in all of us, and as it swings up or down our political views can shift in its wake. When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative. Research conducted by Nail and his colleague in the weeks after September 11, 2001, showed that people of all political persuasions became more conservative in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, in an upcoming study, a team led by Yale University psychologist Jaime Napier found that asking Republicans to imagine that they possessed superpowers and were impermeable to injury made them more liberal. “There is some range within which people can be moved,” Jost says.

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