This is fun. Researchers at the University of Nebraska are using eye-tracking devices (like the one pictured above) to test responses to different stimuli that predict whether someone is liberal or conservative. “Mother Jones” explains:
“We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things,” [political scientist John] Hibbing explains on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “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.”
This is not fringe science: One of Hibbing’s pioneering papers on the physiology of ideology was published in none other than the top-tier journal Science in 2008. It found that political partisans on the left and the right differ significantly in their bodily responses to threatening stimuli. For example, startle reflexes after hearing a loud noise were stronger in conservatives. And after being shown a variety of threatening images (“a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” according to the study), conservatives also exhibited greater skin conductance—a moistening of the sweat glands that indicates arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body’s fight-or-flight response.
It all adds up, according to Hibbing, to what he calls a “negativity bias” on the right. Conservatives, Hibbing’s research suggests, go through the world more attentive to negative, threatening, and disgusting stimuli—and then they adopt tough, defensive, and aversive ideologies to match that perceived reality.
Here’s Hibbing: “Maybe you’ve had this experience, watching a political debate with somebody who disagrees with you. And you discuss it afterwards. And it’s like, ‘Did we watch the same debate?’ And in some respects, you didn’t. And I think that’s what this research indicates.”
My grand strategy for talking about politics with my in-laws is not to talk about it, but I think research like the above is a helpful reminder that sometimes sincere people just look at the world differently. Reminds me of Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf’s suggestions for arguing with folks with radically different perspectives than your own, which includes this important advice: “Remember that lots of intelligent, good-hearted people share their position, and lots of dense jerks share your position, because that’s true of almost every position.”