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."

Continued on Next Page >>




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