Comment »Posted on Monday 22 September 2008 at 4:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

People who find themselves sensitive to scary images and sounds are more likely to hold right-wing political views, a study in Nebraska has found. Researchers asked 46 volunteers about their political views, and selected those with strong opinions on either side of the right-left spectrum.

They then showed the participants frightening pictures, such as a spider crawling across a man’s face, whilst also startling them with loud noises at random. Machines hooked up to their skin measured electrical conductance, combined with eye movement sensors to monitor subjects blinking, allowed the scientists to work out just how terrified they were.

Those more affected by the experiment were found to be more likely in favour of capital punishment and against abortion, views traditionally held by the right, whilst those people who weren’t as scared tended to more liberal views. John Hibbing, co-author of the paper published in Science, said that the research might not mean political views are a genetic trait, but they do have a biological basis:

“Now we can show that certain important political beliefs have a very deep basis,” Hibbing said. “We don’t know for certain that it’s genetic but we do know that there’s a predilection biologically that leads some people to experience the world differently from others. The relationships we found are far from deterministic — environmental events still play a vital role — but the fact that physical reactions to loud noises or to scary animals is at all predictive of political beliefs is remarkable.”

“Should extreme interrogation techniques be used on foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities? Should the privacy of law-abiding citizens be sacrificed if doing so offers the potential for making the country safer? Our research suggests that the answers a person provides to questions such as these are in part traceable to how vividly they physically experience generic threats.”

Hibbing also suggested that this research might allow politicians to understand each other better – people with opposing political views to your own are not just being stubborn, but simply see the world in a different way. Somehow, I don’t think spontaneous hugging is about to break out in the House of Commons, but the study is interesting nevertheless. One thing that doesn’t seem to have been considered is the opposite causation: what if right-wing views are more likely to make you a fearful person? The concept doesn’t seem too unrealistic to me…

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