Conservatives Have Stronger Startle Reflexes?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 18, 2008
As Barack Obama and Joe Biden tussle with John McCain and Sarah Palin over the mantle of change in the U.S. presidential race, they may all be losing a little-known constituency: people who startle easily.

Voters with heightened physical reactions to perceived threats—blinking or sweating when exposed to "threatening" images—may be less likely to vote for change, a new study says. The researchers caution, however, that no cause-and-effect between reflexes and voting patterns has been established.

The controversial study may add fuel to the debate over the extent to which genetics might shape a person's politics.

(Related: "Voter Decision Affected by Polling Place, Study Finds" [June 23, 2008].)

Intriguing Connection Emerged

Political scientist Kevin Smith, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, led a team that surveyed 46 randomly chosen people to determine their stances on issues such as foreign aid, immigration policy, and gun control.

Two months later the researchers tested the same people's physical responses to the unpleasant images—including maggot-infested wounds, bloodied faces, and a spider on a terrified person's face—and startling, loud noises.

(Take our stress quiz.)

The team measured the indicators of emotion and arousal, such as electrical conductance in skin—a technique employed in lie detector tests—and eye responses such as blinking.

An intriguing connection emerged, the researchers say.

"[People displaying] measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control," the team wrote in its report, to be published in the journal Science tomorrow.

"Individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War."

The results might seem to suggest that conservative voters—those who wish to maintain the status quo—tend to be hardwired to be more easily startled.

But Smith cautioned that many important political issues, such as economic concerns, were not tested and that the research was simply an intriguing first step.

"We're not willing to say this separates liberals and conservatives," Smith said.

Pathologizing Conservatism?

But Duke University political scientist Evan Charney said that such studies run the risk of "pathologizing conservatism … and I say that as a left-wing liberal."

The study could be read as, "Conservatives are a hell of a lot more threatened than liberals," Charney said.

"But if the results had come out the other way, we might be reading [interpretations] that liberals are more attentive than conservatives or more concerned than conservatives."

It's unclear whether the images caused a "threatened" response, Charney said. Other emotional reactions could have produced the same skin responses.

Charney has gone so far as to submit a letter to Science in which he notes that the data "also could have been measuring disgust (a reasonable response to a picture of a bloody face, a spider on a person's face, and a leg filled with maggots), surprise, confusion, consternation, discomfort, and a host of other emotional responses."

Charney further suggested that the physical reactions might actually indicate intense concern for an individual thought to be in distress, or perhaps even sympathy and empathy.

Congenitally Conservative? Born Liberal?

Political and social scientists have long held that political attitudes are shaped by upbringing and life experience—nurture not nature.

But some recent research suggests that genes could help to predetermine how people instinctively respond to emotional issues, making people predisposed to inherit specific social views.

"We thought an obvious place to [explore the link] was to look at relevant biological systems, which have a genetic component," study leader Smith said.

"So if you can link those biological systems to political attitudes and behaviors, that [biological system] may be one of the mechanisms that fill in the gap between genes and political attitudes."

Though the study suggests the existence of such a link, Duke's Charney remains skeptical about the extent to which genes govern attitudes.

"I think the primary reason is the exact reason someone speaks English instead of French," he said. "It's not genetic, it's the culture in which they were born and raised."

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