Do people make a conscious choice to be Republican or Democrat? Or is it a matter of how they were raised?
New research says no — conscious decision-making and parental upbringing do not fully explain why some people lean left, while others lean right.
In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that physiological responses and deep-seated psychology are at the core of political differences, according to a new study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
“Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA,” says the study, written by political scientists John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and John Alford of Rice University.
“These natural tendencies to perceive the physical world in different ways may, in turn, be responsible for striking moments of political and ideological conflict throughout history,” Alford said.
Using eye-tracking equipment and skin conductance detectors, the three researchers observed that conservatives tend to have more intense reactions to negative stimuli, such as photographs of people eating worms, burning houses, or maggot-infested wounds.
Combining their own results with similar findings from other researchers around the world, the researchers propose that this so-called “negativity bias” may be a common factor that helps define the difference between conservatives, with their emphasis on stability and order, and liberals, with their emphasis on progress and innovation.
“Across research methods, samples and countries, conservatives have been found to be quicker to focus on the negative, to spend longer looking at the negative, and to be more distracted by the negative,” according to the researchers.
The researchers caution that they make no value judgments about their finding. In fact, they say, some studies show that conservatives, despite their quickness to detect threats, are happier overall than liberals.
And all people, whether liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, tend to be more alert to the negative than to the positive — for good evolutionary reasons, they continued. The harm caused by negative events, such as infection, injury, and death, often outweighs the benefits brought by positive events, they noted.
“We see the ‘negativity bias’ as a common finding that emerges from a large body of empirical studies done not just by us, but by many other research teams around the world,” Smith said.
“We make the case in this article that negativity bias clearly and consistently separates liberals from conservatives.”
The most notable feature about the negativity bias is not that it exists, but that it varies so much from person to person, according to the researchers.
“Conservatives are fond of saying ‘liberals just don’t get it,’ and liberals are convinced that conservatives magnify threats,” Hibbing said. “Systematic evidence suggests both are correct.”
Source: University of Nebraska-LincolnÂ