January 7th, 2012

The biology of politics

I’ve grown very very tired of research that purports to study conservatives and liberals. It seems that most of it is constructed to prove that the former are bad guys and the latter good guys.

But this one seems to be a rare exception—although I’m sure someone can interpret the results in the usual conservatives-bad/liberals-good manner. At the very least, though, I find the results interesting:

Conservatives reacted more strongly to, fixated more quickly on, and looked longer at the unpleasant images; liberals had stronger reactions to and looked longer at the pleasant images compared with conservatives…While liberals’ gazes tended to fall upon the pleasant images, such as a beach ball or a bunny rabbit, conservatives clearly focused on the negative images – of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toilet, for example…

[C]onservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians – presumed to be a negative to them – than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans. Liberals, on the other hand, had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats – presumed to be a positive stimulus to them – than they did to images of the Republicans.

Conservatives often criticize liberals for believing, against all evidence, that basic societal problems can be “fixed” if only we have enough goodwill (beachballs and bunnies, anyone?). And liberals often criticize conservatives for being fear-based (as in the so-called War on Terror, for example) or pessimistic about the possibilities of human improvement.

Not that this sort of research proves much of anything at all, or closely ties into any of that. But still, it’s interesting to someone like me, who puzzles over these differences and who’s looked at the clouds of politics from both sides now. Of course, I tend to also reject any physiological or innate explanations of political differences, because (among other things) how would they account for changers?

42 Responses to “The biology of politics”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    The only things that keep me “pessimistic about the possibilities of human improvement” are the testimony of history and the extreme and continuing moronic statements, assertions, and thoughts of the assh***s that form the liberal part of society.

    Other than that I’m all about feelings, nothing more than feelings….

  2. Occam's Beard Says:

    I’m extremely skeptical of any and all social science research, including this rare instance that isn’t blatantly pro-left. As neo points out, most of it seems intended to “prove” some superiority of leftists and/or deficiency of conservatives.

    Frankly, most social science research strikes me as more in the nature of a glorified parlor game than anything else.

  3. model_1066 Says:

    Yeah, these ‘studies’ are little more than prognostications from sheep entrails or tea leaves, gussied up with science-y words. I am sick of them also. But when the rubber hits the road, liberalism=fail and conservatism=continued success of the Western ethos. Liberals are little more than contrarian whiners, seeking to validate their emotions through political pressure…and too vain to admit they are ever wrong. Hence the over the top rhetoric, like the tv ad about Paul Ryan pushing grandma over the cliff. They’re spoiled children, really.

  4. Occam's Beard Says:

    But when the rubber hits the road, liberalism=fail and conservatism=continued success of the Western ethos.

    This, ultimately, is where the scientific method resides: in resort to data. Liberalism is at heart a religion; despite ample experimental data to the contrary, it posits its prescriptions will yield wonderful things … next time.

    In this respect it is reminiscent of grad students who are convinced that an experiment should yield a given result, and who, when it doesn’t, will then endlessly repeat the experiment, all the while utterly convinced (for no apparent reason) that each of the N negative outcomes was somehow flawed.

    And if they ever did get the expected result, they’d probably stand down, finally satisfied, rather than consider that perhaps that that outlier was in fact the flawed result, not the obviously reproducible result they’d been getting.

  5. M J R Says:

    “And if they ever did get the expected result, they’d probably stand down, finally satisfied, rather than consider that perhaps that that outlier was in fact the flawed result, not the obviously reproducible result they’d been getting.”

    This engenders in me one big fat harrumph, because it’s eerily like voting rercounts. The Dems will try, try, try again, until at last the Democrat wins. Exhibit A — that joker (literally) Al Franken. And the Repubs are too impotent and/or stupid to do anything about it.

    Butcha gotta admit, it’s how the Dems think and work.

  6. M J R Says:


  7. chuck Says:

    Political affiliation tends to be inherited from the family, which in turn tends to inherit from the subculture. Jews, for instance, tend inherit the Democratic Party and liberalism. Blacks these days tend to inherit the Democratic party, but aren’t particularly socially liberal. I don’t associate bunnies and beach balls with either. Am I missing something? How were liberals and conservatives defined?

  8. Scott Says:

    Some of Artfldgr’s long and rambling posts have some interesting nuggets in them if you have the time and the patience to wade through them. And I’m sure he will have tons to say about this topic, since it’s right up his alley.

    I’m pretty sure I saved this link from one of Artfldgr’s comments. I saved it as a reference point because I think it really gets to the root of the Frankfurt School founders who essentially invented social science research and what their real aims and goals were: to upend Judeo-Christian values that have defined Western Civilization for 2000 or more years.

    It’s a bit long but a good read:


  9. mizpants Says:

    Sounds like the bias is built right into that “study” too. As in: liberals are sunny and positive and hopeful and loving. Conservatives are dark and negative and pessimistic and hateful

  10. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    As to innate traits determining our political beliefs, I believe that Steven Pinker has shown how this can be in his book, “THE BLANK SLATE.” Pinker describes five basic personality traits that determine who we become. The acronym OCEAN is used as a memory crutch to recall the traits. They are:
    O = How open or closed minded we are.
    C = How conscientious or careless we are.
    E = How extroverted or shy we are.
    A = How aggressive or passive we are.
    N = How neurotic or stable we are.
    Each trait shows a spectrum from one extreme to the other. As in from very open minded to extreme closed mindedness and all the points in between. Pinker does believe that we can become, with effort and training, less shy, less aggressive, more stable, etc. but the amount of change would be relatively small.

    I think three traits tend to select for conservatism.
    1. How conscientious a person is. The more conscientious, the more tendency to accept personal responsibility – a conservative tendency.
    2. How aggressive a person is. Those who are more willing to stand up against the vagaries of life tend to be more independent minded. Conservatives believe in individualism. Less aggressive people are likely to be followers.
    3. How neurotic/stable a person is. Neurotic people are more likely to be dominated by their feelings, whereas more stable people can set their feelings aside and examine evidence. Conservatives tend to follow evidence more than liberals.

    IMO, people like neo have these traits, but were educated to believe that progressivism was superior. If you have been educated to believe something, but you have a sufficiently open mind, you will begin to question the idea that most of us are victims who need to be taken care of by someone smarter and more benvolent than we. You may also, as an individual, chafe under the idea that you must conform to ideas that, based on the evidence, don’t make sense. It is the degree of open mindedness that allows people to change their beliefs, but they must be also responsible, independent minded, and psychically stable enough to break free of the indoctrination of progressivism.

    I’m sure there are many who will take exception to my explanation. I look forward to seeing the responses.

  11. Gringo Says:

    M J R

    This engenders in me one big fat harrumph, because it’s eerily like voting rercounts. The Dems will try, try, try again, until at last the Democrat wins.

    Several reactions. 1. Yes.The survey will be configured and interpreted to support the original assumptions one is setting to “prove.”

    2. Multiple recounts. I voted Third Party in 2000, so I was initially neutral regarding the ultimate outcome of the Florida vote. While I could see the need for ONE recount, I considered it absurd to have more than one recount. Anyone who has counted several objects by hand- and bear in mind we were talking about millions of ballots- knows that there is an inherent error in hand counting. A third counting will in most instances be just as accurate/inaccurate as a second counting. But the Democrats wanted as many recounts as possible- until one showed up where they won.

    As I see it, childhood experience is why I became more conservative and less liberal. I once read that for liberals, utopia is in the future, and for conservatives, utopia is in the past. For liberals, the future will always be an improvement over the present. For conservatives, the view of the future is tempered by the observation that a good present can go bad- as it so often has.

    From my childhood experience and from observing the child experiences of my peers, I saw that an unquestioning faith in a shining future -including a shining future courtesy of some great government program- was the faith of fools, as things could turn dicey very quickly.

    Unquestioning faith in a better future -especially in a future mediated by a government program- is a bedrock assumption of liberalism.

  12. gj Says:

    Maybe it’s me, but I interpreted the results as conservatives focusing on what needed attention (care for the wound, clean the toilet, etc.) while liberals acted to avoid viewing unpleasant images that implied a need for corrective action.

    But I’m just a gun-toting bitter clinger, so what do I know?

  13. Michael Says:

    gj: That was how I saw it, too. I don’t turn away from dirty toilets or wounds. I clean and/or dress them, as appropriate. Somebody’s got to do it.

  14. SteveH Says:

    rom the article….”Given what each side sees, what they pay attention to, what they physiologically experience – the answer is both sides are right.”

    Both sides can be right in harmless theoretical exercises without consequences. But the real world has dire consequences for flawed perceptions. Just ask anyone who percieved he could beat the train to the crossing or thought a black liberation theology parishoner would make a good President.

  15. Curtis Says:

    I am an identical twin and my twin’s views are so close to mine that it scares me. In fact, all we have to do is mention, sometimes, one word, and the reference may be enough to identify the latest AT article we have both read. This type of thing happened even if we were three thousand miles apart. And yet, I am three thousand miles from my Dad’s very liberal stance.

  16. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Gj +
    Michael +
    I keep thinking “Nurture vs. Nature”.
    Then there’s Curtis and his twin and their dad.
    Maybe they were adopted…

  17. Sorta Blogless Sunday Pinup » Pirate's Cove Says:

    […] neo-neocon has the biology of politics […]

  18. M of Hollywood Says:

    what a great discussion – and neo sets it up just right.
    I always (used to) like those studies or insights that seem to line up everything inside us and explain our politics of “taking sides.” But maybe it is wishful thinking to make it all simpler than it is.
    Prager said something like: The Left thinks the Right is bad (evil) and the Right thinks the Left is wrong (stupid). It does seem that some twist like that is essential to gat at the nub of what separates us.
    Last night I saw Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivers in a one-person show (can’t call it a one-woman show because Molly/Kathleen seemed to disparage everything graceful, peaceful, loving, or insightful about femininity).
    Molly/Kathleen at one point writhed on the stage and said something like, “I’m a liberal and I’m proud of it. Boots are made for walking and hearts are made for bleeding.” The Los Angeles theater audience went wild. The biggest foot-stomping applause, however, came when she took her pot shots at George Bush. The only thing I agreed with in the one-person presentation was when Molly/Kathleen said, “I’m out of touch with my emotions.” Clearly. As I said to a person in my party when the staged diatribe was finally over, “Well, people love to find reasons to support their hate.” This one-person indulgence festival gave people who already hate some more feeble ammunition to hate with more community feeling about their hatred.

    So neo asks the right question: if personality traits “go with” political persuasions, how, then, do we explain those who change. I changed. I WAS Molly Ivers. luxuriating in how well I could hate and armed with so many examples. It took close attention to the Democratic nomination process in 2008 for me to change. The nasty fight within the Democrats showed me who they are and I could no longer identify. That then allowed me actually to listen to the arguments of “the other side”, (including eveb Sarah Palin to whom I would not have been able to listen before, for I would have been so offended by her simplicity and femininity), and I could see the intelligence (not the evil) of the right. It was a glorious thing to relinquish my hatred and to ascend to analysis of systems over emotion for victims. I will be forever grateful to the corruption within the Democrat party for allowing me to see. Thus, I can thank the Chicago style for awakening me to a deeper understanding of freedom and individualism.
    Also, thanks, Scott, for that link to Accuracy in Academia – a fine article even if it puts one to sleep for its detail about how the left took Marxism and has tried in every way, shape, and fashion to keep it alive for, now, 160 years despite the fact that nearly everyone under an allegedly “Marxist” regime wants OUT. Humans want freedom. Why can’t the left see that?

  19. Gringo Says:

    [C]onservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians – presumed to be a negative to them – than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans.

    That would describe me, an apostate from the liberal/Democratic fold. I turned first to Third Parties, and then to Republicans, because I grew PROGRESSIVELY more disgusted with the nonsense emanating from the Democratic Party and its politicians. An acquaintance once described me as “the Un-Democrat,” an accurate description.

    It’s not so much that I love Republicans, it’s that Democrats disgust me.

  20. M J R Says:

    Interesting. For years I have described myself as an un-Democrat, I may or may not support the Republican, I may or may not opt for going third or fourth party, I may or may not vote (and not voting is a vote in my book) — but under no circumstance will I vote for a Democrat, not after all their routine insults to my integrity. I don’t want that crowd and their ilk anywhere near the reins oif power.

    Anyway, it’s nice to spot a fellow traveler, and thanks for your rejoinder back at 8:27 pm yesterday!

  21. Stark Says:

    It would be interesting to know how many conservatives evolve into liberals Vs liberals becoming more conservative.

    Politics aside, most people become more wary and sceptical as their life experience expands. Once adults are burned buying vaporware promises they generally learn from the experience and change their acceptance quotient.

  22. Jack Says:

    gj has it exactly correct. The conservatives in this study seemed to focus on “problems”, while the liberals focused on “distractions” (beach balls and bunnies).

    If the “researchers” in this study weren’t the left-wingers we know they are, they could draw parallels to how both groups acknowledge Islam, the greatest threat to the free world. Many conservatives want to talk frankly about the supremacist and hate-filled texts and teachings of Islam, while the entire liberal world either ignores it or remains in blissful ignorance, believing in their peaceful imagined version of Islam.

  23. armchair pessimist Says:

    Well now, my wife is a Lib and loves those “gritty” crime series. Me, I wouldn’t say I go for bunnies and daisy meadows, but dead bodies in dumpsters don’t do it for me at all. Of course, she and I are a very small sampling indeed.

    Another highly unscientific piece of research. Somebody who worked at the local Borders told me that that mostly women buy crime novels; men prefer espionage, Tom Clancy stuff. I do.

    Possibly guys have a higher scare threshold; a serial killer might kill a couple of dozen people, which is too bad for the victims, a “tragedy” but not a “statistic”, while a diabolical spy can destroy a whole country.

    It’d be interesting to see whether this divide, if it exists, lines up with the Lib/Conservative divide.

  24. Occam's Beard Says:

    Neo, check out Andrew Ferguson’s apposite take on social science research, linked at Instapundit.

  25. » Sorta Blogless Sunday Pinup Says:

    […] neo-neocon has the biology of politics […]

  26. Occam's Beard Says:

    Somebody who worked at the local Borders told me that that mostly women buy crime novels.

    The “Lifetime Channel effect?”

  27. Henry Scuoteguazza Says:

    I highly recommend the work of Jonathan Haidt. http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/ He wrote The Happiness Hypothesis (one of my favorite books) and is coming out with The Righteous Mind in March. He recently caused some controversy among his peers when he gave a talk “at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, on the need for ideological diversity in social psychology, and on benefits such diversity would bring to our science.” http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/postpartisan.html

    At the bottom of this last link Haidt says: “I am not a conservative. I have no dog in this fight, no axe to grind. I was a liberal Democrat from my early teens until the Fall of 2010. I stopped calling myself a liberal while writing The Righteous Mind. I now see both sides of the spectrum as having valid moral concerns, and as having good ideas about how to run a humane society. … So now I am a centrist. My goal in the partisanship debate is not to argue for one side or the other. My goal is to disrupt the moral forcefield that turns on when conservatives disappear from a community of social scientists.”

  28. Sergey Says:

    This study reminds me one well-thought and rigorous experiment which was initiated in Novosibirsk Institute of Genetics and Cytology in 1968; it is still running. This group attempted to reproduce in controlled environment another “experiment” which in human history took several millenia: domestication of wolves which resulted in producing dogs. The researchers tried to domesticate another species, foxes, to get human-friendly “tame” variety. They selectively bred foxes for low levels of fear and aggression and empathy for humans. Leading ethologists and dog breeders provided a programm of tests used in kinology to assess these traits. In each generation all newborns were selected into 3 groups according their fitness to be human “friends”, and the most promissing were chosen for further breeding among themselves. Their physiological conditions also were monitored. The results were spectacular: the aim was achieved! The new breed of foxes in 20-th generation was as human-friendly as the most amiable breeds of dogs. But there were unintended consequencies, too: they aquired many anathomical traits known in the most domesticated dogs: curly tails, specific color marks of their fur, the quality of fur badly deteriorated. As hormones blood levels showed, males became feminized, and females masculinized. And all were infantelized. Becoming completely dependent on their masters, they lost all instincts of adults. The common denominator was hyperactivity of thymus gland, which in mammals controls persistence of infancy. During adolescence, it devolves and almost completely disapears in adults. So all effects of domestication could be traced to genes which terminate infancy during normal ontogeny. These genes accumulated mutations during selective breeding, and we got never-maturated strain of foxes.
    This experiment elucidates differencies between conservatives and liberals, not in terms of innate traits, but in terms of correlations between traits that hold irrespective whether they are inherited or aquired.

  29. michaele Says:

    This strikes a chord with me. As a supporter of the Iraq War, I felt I had to seek out and watch the beheading video of Daniel Pearl. I knew it was something that would cause me distress and give me a sick feeling but it seemed only right that I should pay the small price of discomfort for what I was supporting my government to ask of soldiers.

  30. Perfected democrat Says:

    Benjamin Spock and the Unruly Generation

  31. texexec Says:


    Perhaps changers can be explained by the possibility that the way people think changes as they grow older.

    Churchill said that “If you aren’t a liberal when you are young, you don’t have a heart. If you aren’t a conservative when you are old, you don’t have a brain.”

    As a matter of fact, 40+ liberals do seem to be arrested in emotional development and realistic perception of the world.

  32. Richard Aubrey Says:


    Arrested emotional development. I think so. I get the impression that the left–the confused left, not the pros–believe that somewhere their parents are still In Charge.
    If things don’t go right, it’s because the parents don’t know things aren’t going right. If, after the parent figures are informed that things aren’t going right, things continue to not go right, it’s because the parent figures want them to go wrong. Because the parent figures could fix them if they wanted to, guaranteed. That they don’t means the parent figures like things to go wrong.
    On another blog, some guy with arrested development was complaining that he couldn’t get his hand into the bottom of a drinking glass to clean it and wondered whose idea it was to make it so small. I invited him to try drinking from a bowl with a diameter of, say, a foot. He’ll get his beer in his ear. Some stuff just is, I said, and, while I know it’s a bummer to be unable to blame somebody, sometimes stuff just is. He didn’t like that. Not my snark, my assertion about sometimes stuff just is.
    No matter what, somebody, somewhere could change it if it were wrong.
    “Wrong” being the concept common among spoiled first graders.

  33. The Difference Between Conservatives and Liberals | Right As Usual Says:

    […] …may not be so much ideological as BIOLOGICAL. […]

  34. LindaF Says:

    Referenced at:


  35. SteveH Says:

    I think most modern liberals were made by default. IOW these are personalities that can’t properly defend themselves from pop culture media’s peer pressure campaign against conservatism and common sense.

  36. Occam's Beard Says:

    the left–the confused left, not the pros–believe that somewhere their parents are still In Charge.

    …which explains the temper tantrums, aka demonstrations and such, of, e.g., Code Pink: adolescent rebellion.

    …which further explains in part why leftist politics has such appeal to the young, who are often still evincing authentic adolescent rebellion (not the more pernicious and long-lived kind).

  37. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Occam. I count the cadre of Code Pink among the pros. Their followers, on the other hand….

    I see the demos as tantrums which, after their experience in growing up, always resulted in getting what they want.

    I am comforted that my son and his wife tell my granddaughter–who gets what she wants when it’s reasonable–“take what you get, don’t be upset”. IOW, sometimes you have to do without.

  38. BBC Says:

    who puzzles over these differences and who’s looked at the clouds of politics from both sides now – but who has always been trapped within the opaque skins of the onion of theism

  39. Occam's Beard Says:


  40. Don Says:

    As someone previously mentioned, blacks tend to be socially conservative but are typically Democrats. The same is true for hispanics.

    Obama helped defeat gay marriage in CA by bringing out many black and hispanic voters in 2008.

  41. Don Says:

    In my experience the left does tend towards less maturity. And their ideology does have a utopian basis which is hardly something a practical minded adult is going to buy into.

  42. Julia NYC Says:

    M of Hollywood: You and I have had the exact same conversion experience!!! Thank you for your post!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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