Liberal or Conservative — the Machine Knows All

I don’t have much use for political scientists as a rule. It’s yet another ivory tower discipline that leans too far left to be of much use to mankind.

But according to political scientist John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I probably can’t help feeling that way.

Hibbing, with his Political Physiology Laboratory, may have hit on something interesting — evidence that our political inclinations may stem from our physiological reactions to the world around us.

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By hooking up volunteers to an eye-tracking computer and a device to measure galvanic skin response, showing the test subjects series of images and measuring the results, Hibbing has begun to catalog the different responses liberals and conservatives have to various stimuli.

It’s an old idea. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that the dominant political parties of his time — Whigs (liberals) and Tories (conservatives) — were the same two parties that have existed under different names throughout all of human history. He believed that political parties were merely expressions of two fundamental human natures.

Hibbing is thinking along the same lines. He recently said on the Inquiring Minds podcast, “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.”

Care to guess who picks “fight” and who picks “flight”?

Hibbing, who has been published in the journal Science, sums up his findings — and this, one suspects, is where his own liberal bias slips in — by saying that conservatives go through life being more aware of potentially dangerous, threatening, negative and “disgusting” stimuli and consequently develop defensive and “aversive” strategies. He terms this “negativity bias.”

In a 2012 study, Hibbing showed test subjects series of photo collages and scored where they looked first and how long their eyes stayed focused on each image. One sample is here.

Hibbing found that conservatives tended to focus on the “disgusting” images first and look at them longer, while liberals zeroed in on the “positive” images. “Those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently,” Hibbing said.

One of Hibbings studies found that a higher sensitivity to disgusting things could predict reactions to the concept of homosexual “marriage.” He’s on to something there because the advocates of homosexual “marriage” clearly have a higher tolerance for disgusting behavior, and wherever the whole homosexual “marriage” movement has made inroads, there seems to be a general decline in moral standards and desensitizing of the culture that precedes it.

This is similar to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said, that people who are easily disgusted are conservative, and people who don’t gross-out easily are liberals.

Now here’s where I think Hibbing’s conclusions jump the track, however. (There’s my negativity bias talking again.) Hibbing has suggested that characteristics such as being hierarchical vs. egalitarian, preferring punishment to forgiveness, or being threatened by outsiders vs. intrigued by different cultures have a basis in genetics.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

As the far-left magazine Mother Jones put it, “Hibbing believes that understanding that you don’t fully control your political orientation, any more than you do your sexual orientation or your left-hand/right-hand orientation, promotes political tolerance.”

Hibbing’s research is being used — by him and especially by other liberals — to tout how conservatives see the world as a big, bad place and it’s our paranoia and fears that are behind our reactions to homosexual “marriage,” amnesty, gun rights and national defense.

So if only we weren’t such scaredy-cats, then everybody could marry anything, illegal immigrants could vote, we’d stop being a threat to the world and big daddy government could tuck us in at night. (My negativity bias is just running wild right now.)

I think Hibbing and other liberals haven’t fully digested the implications of his research, though.

Hibbing didn’t test whether the world is a dangerous place. It is, at least to any rational assessment. Hibbing just tested how people perceive the world and he found that in a world full of dangerous, threatening and disgusting things, conservatives faced them, while liberals turned their eyes aside and preferred to see just puppies and kitties.

I think Hibbing’s own bias is at work in his findings. What his data suggest to me is that liberals are disinclined to acknowledge that things can be dirty, dangerous or threatening and to prepare for that eventuality. Rather, they wear the proverbial rose-colored glasses and pretend everything’s fine and dandy because they aren’t emotionally prepared to deal with a world that requires toughness, maturity and moral judgment.

Conservatives are very familiar with liberals’ inclination to call people names. That’s a defensive strategy employed by someone who’s angry or afraid. While insults may roll off a conservative’s back, personal insults to liberals are like sharp weapons. Liberals as a group are deeply worried how other people see them. They all want to be seen as generous, open-minded and all things wonderful. They perpetually want to change the way everybody thinks and what they believe. That’s all part of the desire to have that fairy-tale world.

You can even sense that liberal bent in the Left’s efforts to remove God from the public arena, and its ongoing campaign to weaken religious sensibilities. After all, God is that big, demanding being who requires moral judgment and expects his followers to face and conquer sin, which means getting up to your elbows in that dirty, threatening world. Get rid of the source of judgment, then suddenly everything’s OK again no matter what evil, perverse behavior you get into.

Jefferson may have been right that there really are only two political parties throughout history: one that faces the world and deals with it as it is, and one that hides from reality and tries to inflict its neurotic behavior on the rest of us.


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