Many of us have that one relative, the so called “crazy uncle.” You know the one. The family’s sitting around the Thanksgiving table, Dad’s about to carve the turkey, everyone is happy, and then out of the blue Uncle Fred says, “We should be thankful that we all work for a living, and not get our turkey handed to us, like those welfare crackheads.”
There goes another Thanksgiving.
Scientists are starting to zero in on what they believe makes conservatives behave the way they do. John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, and his colleagues, suggest that conservatives have something they call a “negativity bias.” In other words, conservatives are more tuned into threatening and disgusting stimuli in their environment.
Hibbing, et al, have done a number of experiments that examine the physiological differences between conservatives and others. Using things such as skin conductance sensors and eye trackers, they have discovered that political conservatives react differently than liberals to negative stimuli. Hibbing explains:
We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things. It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently.
Conservatives, according to Hibbing’s research, respond more quickly to threatening stimuli. This goes a long way toward explaining the conservative love for things such as tough law enforcement and military actions. Hibbing believes this reaction is left over from the Pleistocene Epoch, when failure to quickly react to negative stimuli could get you killed.
Hibbing and others have been looking at the physiology of conservatism for some time. And of course their work has been panned by conservatives. National Review columnist Byron York attacked a 2003 study by Stanford professor John T. Jost and others, that said that conservative traits are connected by physiology. York’s main complaint about the study, interestingly enough, was not its conclusions, but the fact that it was federally funded.
Now, over 10 years later, Mother Jones reports that responses from other researchers to Hibbing’s and his colleagues’ findings have been overwhelmingly positive. John Jost, now at New York University, writes in response to Hibbing:
There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety.
What is the significance of these findings? Mainly, they challenge the belief that someone’s mind can be changed by a powerful, indisputable argument. Conservatives are simply wired to think the way they do. So, if Hibbing, Jost, and others are correct, if you try to argue with Uncle Fred, you’re largely wasting your time.
Hear Hibbings explain how conservatives’ ‘negative bias’ works.
John Hibbing sat down with Chris Mooney for an in depth discussion of his findings, which you can hear on Mooney’s “Inquiring Minds” podcast:
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