Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More on conservative versus liberal brains.

Nicholas Kristoff does a nice piece on a topic I have done several previous posts on - fundamental differences in the wiring of conservative versus liberal brains - the central observation being that conservatives feel threat and revulsion much more readily than liberals, with corresponding physiological changes measured, for example, by the startle blink reflex or skin conductance. Kristoff discusses work showing a remarkably strong correlation between state attitudes toward spanking children and voting patterns. Essentially, spanking states go Republican, while those with more timeouts go Democratic.
Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable or under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between “us” and “them,” and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups — and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating worms.
And, I thought this bit was interesting:
I moaned to the scholars that their research was utterly dispiriting for those of us in the opinion business. After all, it’s extra challenging to try to change people’s minds if they may not even share our hard-wiring. Are people who are “wrong” on the issues beyond redemption, because of their physiological inability to help themselves?..Professors Hetherington and Smith dismissed my whining and were more sanguine. For starters, they note that physiological differences are probably found among the extremes on each side, while political battles are fought in the middle. Indeed, these studies may be useful in determining what arguments to deploy against the other side...“What research like ours may help with is in figuring out how to construct an argument in a way that is going to meaningfully connect with those on the other side,” Dr. Smith said.

Conservatives may be more responsive to health reform, he suggested, if it is framed as a national security argument. For example, American companies complain about the difficulty of competing with foreign companies that don’t have to pay for employee medical coverage. In that sense, our existing health care system leaves us vulnerable...That foreign threat might make conservatives sweat so much that maybe, just maybe, they’d consider revisiting the issue.


  1. From a UK perspective I do think that the psychology works differently. The left or Labour party in this counrty appeal to fear and that the state can protect - it is far more authoritarian than the conservative party. Yes, there conservatives in the threat camp but most understand that human needs to be free and not controlled.

  2. Yet the UK conservatives appeal to faith, armed forces, strong policing, harsh sentences, tough parenting, etc etc.

    Labour appeal to insecurity by proposing provision of services and social support, and trying to buffer people against economic tides. Conservatives appeal to insecurity by proposing to bash the bad, threatening outsiders. It's fundamentally the same as in the US, although the centre of the debate is shifted somewhat.