Researchers insist they can tell someone's politlcal affiliation by looking at the condition of their offices and bedrooms. Messy? You're a lefty. A neatnik? Welcome to the Right.
According to a controversial new study, set to be published in The Journal of Political Psychology, the bedrooms and offices of liberals, who are generally thought of as open, tend to be colorful and awash in books about travel, ethnicity, feminism and music, along with music CDs covering folk, classic and modern rock, as well as art supplies, movie tickets and travel memorabilia.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to surround themselves with calendars, postage stamps, laundry baskets, irons and sewing materials in their personal spaces, according to the study. Their bedrooms and offices are well-lighted and decorated with sports paraphernalia and flags—especially American ones.
"This is different from putting up an Obama–Biden sticker on your bulletin board," says Sam Gosling, who co-authored the study that included surveys and room inspections of 76 college students and 94 professionals ranging fromrealtors to architects.
These room cues are "behavioral residue," says Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The idea is that distinct cognitive inclinations of liberals towards ambiguity and intellectualism, and conservatives toward order, "drive the way one leads one's life and displays one's life in their living and work spaces," says Gosling's co-author Dana Carney, an assistant professor of management at Columbia University's Business School in New York City.
Those cognitive styles turn up in a personality test called the Big Five, which assesses people for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism; only the first two have been strongly linked to political tendencies, says New York University (N.Y.U.) social psychologist John Jost, another author on the study.
"It's pleasurable for liberals to think more. They gravitate toward art, to things that are not as concrete," says Carney. "Conservatives have a need for order, for there not to be ambiguity. There you see that expressed by being more orderly, having more cleaning supplies, needing to have everything lined up and organized so that one feels one's environment is predictable and therefore safe."
The findings are just the latest in a burst of recent attempts to unearth politics in personality, the brain and DNA. Brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and even genetic tests are turning up possible clues to our political origins and behaviors.
Positive personality traits associated with liberalism (self-reliant, resilient, dominating and energetic) and negative ones attributed to conservatism (easily victimized or offended, indecisive, fearful and rigid) appear as young as nursery school–age kids—and correlate with those children's political beliefs in adulthood, according to a 20-year study published in 2006 in the Journal of Research in Personality. More recently, scientists linked the strength of a person's startle response to their political leanings: conservatives tended to scare easier, blinking harder than liberals when they heard a loud noise.
Needless to say, not all experts are on board with the subtext of these conclusions. Political scientist Evan Charney dismisses links made by the studies between personality and ideology. "There's a lot of bad science here," says Charney, a fellow at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University.
"Confirmation bias has flooded into this [area of] study. I'm a liberal but I don’t believe liberals are superior people or that there's an obvious correlation between personality and political ideology," he says. The studies "take the most value-laden language and treat it as if you're talking about a left-spinning or right-spinning neutron. They are invariably going to reflect the value assumptions of a society—in this case, academic liberals."
Other supposed explanations for political behavior also are controversial. Circuits of cells called mirror neurons that fire or send out signals when we see someone act in a way that's familiar may have played a role in a 20-point, post–Republican Convention swing in allegiances among white, female Obama supporters to the GOP ticket, says Marco Iacoboni, author of the book Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect with Others. Pundits credited John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate for the shift, but Iacoboni says there's reason to believe biology played a role.
At the most basic level, mirror neurons—in the form of empathy with Palin—may have temporarily dazzled swing female voters, says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of the 2006 book The Female Brain, which explores hormonal and other influences on the brains of women and girls.
"The mirror neurons in your brain are going, 'ding, ding, ding—this person is just like me,'" Brizendine says. Those mirror neurons are working with the insula, a section of the limbic system involved with emotions and gut feelings, she says. Both operate at a subcortical, or nonthinking, level dubbed the "sub-Blink level" after New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book Blink about gut instincts.
"It carries a really big wallop to the thinking part of the brain, which has to argue for or against it," Brizendine says. "The part of the brain sending off messages of gut feelings that 'she [Palin] gets it' influences the other part of your brain. It doesn't mean it will trump it in the voting booth, but it's enough to switch the numbers" in polling immediately after being introduced to her.
Neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps cautions that "neuropolitics" is too nascent an area of research from which to draw strong conclusions. "There's not a one-to-one correspondence between brain regions and behavior," Phelps, director of the Phelps Lab at N.Y.U.'s Center for Neuroeconomics, said during a recent panel discussion on the issue. "Brain science hasn't yet informed political decisions."
The most surprising research may involve the role of genetics in politics.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles found that 72 percent of the variation in voter turnout is genetic, according to a study in July's American Political Science Review (APSR). Another study they published that month in the Journal of Politics showed that people with variants of the MAOA and 5HTT genes were 10 percent more likely to vote in the 2000 presidential election than people with less efficient versions of the genes. Those genes affect the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates social interaction as well as trust and fear.
A 2006 analysis of 4,500 pairs of twins in APSR found that as much as half of the variation in their beliefs about social organizing principles such as leadership, outsiders, defense spending and traditional values could be attributed to genetics.
Charney says that conclusion is too simplistic: it assumes a person's personality is genetically determined and that those character traits are correlated with their political ideologies.
"The problem with this is that it assumes people develop personalities and at a certain point, choose an ideology to match their personality. That's just not the way it works," he says. "Personality is developed in conjunction with the moral and political beliefs in one's environment. They believe the ideologies they do because of the way in which they were raised."
Indeed, there is a caveat to the twin study: whereas genetics exerted an influence on their value systems, heritability had far less to do with how the twins affiliated with a political party.
"A lot of things can get in the way of these deep-seated dispositions, which are probably related to politics but are far from determinative," says John Hibbing, a professor of political science at University of Nebraska–Lincoln who co-authored the study. "There's not a gene for being a Democrat or Republican, or for Obama or McCain. But genes for how we think about the social or political world might have an impact on how we conceive of a lot of things these days."