I am not, nor have I ever been, a citizen of the US (hell, these days I’m not even allowed to visit the place). Even in theory, though, the thought of being a Republican is not one that appeals to me. I’ll grant you that Obama’s record on privacy, civil rights, and transparent government is more than enough to warrant kicking the man out of office — until, that is, you take a look at the bevy of delusional nut jobs and urinal cakes lined up to take his place. The current crop of presidential wannabes excels at one very difficult task, day after day and apparently without effort: they make Obama look good. So while I’ve always rejected any model that would presume to flatten my political opinions onto a one-dimensional, left-right axis, I have to admit that if you held a gun to my head I’d put myself on the left side of the scale. Left-leaning folks are a bit less hostile to science, at least. They are less likely to take their marching orders from some invisible sky fairy who tells them that Life begins the moment your fly is unzipped.
Imagine my reaction, then, to the disquieting notion that I might after all be an elephant instead of an ass.
We start on familiar ground: with the fact that fear, anxiety, and pareidolia all tend to correlate with right-wing beliefs, and that right-wingers tend to feel more threatened than left-wingers by the same stimuli. I’ve blogged on this before; hell, I’ve even worked it into a public talk or two. The paper that got me thinking about this back in ’08 was mainly behavioral; it speculated about neurological and genetic underpinnings, but the data it presented derived entirely from involuntary stress indicators (blink rate, skin conductance). A 2011 paper in Current Biology went further, showing that self-described conservatives tend to have relatively large amygdalae (the part of the brain responsible for basic Idian appetites and fear responses), while liberals tend towards enlarged anterior cingulate gyrii (which has its neurons in pretty much everything else, including a gatekeeping role for the conscious self). Now, a study so recent that it hasn’t even been published yet — a study that will, evidently, be published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B once the embargo lifts on January 23 — falls somewhere between. It doesn’t present direct brain measurements, but it uses precise measurement of eye movements to infer what the brain is most interested in at any given moment.
In a nutshell, liberals and conservatives were presented with a series of images, some “pleasant” and some “unpleasant”. Assuming the sneak preview provided (and then mysteriously redacted) by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can be trusted:
“While liberals’ gazes tended to fall upon the pleasant images, such as a beach ball or a bunny rabbit, conservatives clearly focused on the negative images — of an open wound, a crashed car or a dirty toilet, for example.”
The authors go on to suggest that
… those on the right are more attuned and attentive to aversive elements in life and are more naturally inclined to confront them. … The results also are consistent with conservatives’ support of policies to protect society from perceived external threats (support for increased defense spending or opposition to immigration) and internal ones as well (support for traditional values and being tough on crime).
In other words, right-wingers have a hair-trigger sensitivity to threats in their environment; left-wingers are more laid back. The right regards the left as hopelessly naïve about the big bad world; the left regards the right as paranoid fear-mongers, and wishes they would lighten up.
Now as anyone who’s read my novels will attest, I’ve made a career out of railing about the dangers posed by everything from invasive microbes all the way up to nonconscious space aliens. Candas Dorsey once opined that Starfish made her want to open her veins in a warm tub. James Nicoll reads my stuff whenever his will to live becomes too strong. (Seriously. That’s what he said. I quote it right there on my quaint little Web 1.0 splash page.) So if Smith & Hibbing’s conclusions are correct, my own threat obsession must put me somewhere to the right of Barbara Bachmann.
Which might not be that much of a stretch — because if Smith and Hibbing are correct, Michelle Bachmann is somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. All of those wannabe presidential clowns are, with the exception of John Huntsman and pre-2010 Newt Gingrich: after all, aren’t they the ones telling us all that global warming is just a hoax perpetrated by the all-powerful Green Lobby, that there’s nothing to worry about, that the icecaps aren’t really shrinking and even if they are it’s not our fault?
What it comes down to, I think, is what each of us perceives as a threat. It’s easy enough to rattle off a list of threats that freak out Liberals more than Republicans: species extinction, climate change, hormone disruptors in the water supply. Liberals, as a group, feel more threatened by our dependence on non-renewable resources, and on the consequences of applying unlimited-growth economic models to a planet with a limited resource base. Conservatives, in contrast, seem to be more threatened by anything that would disrupt The Way Things Are Now, rather than threats of The Way Things Could Be If This Goes On. This would include hostility to any claim that The Way Things Are has got to change, and — by extension — any evidence in support of that claim. How else to explain the Right’s fingers-in-the-ears-la-la-la repudiation of everything from evolution to climate change to gay marriage? How else to explain the odd widespread belief in a Tree-huggers Guild so vast and so powerful that it fakes a global climate crisis, forces governments to their knees, leaves only the beleaguered and impoverished heroes of the
oil industry rebel alliance with the courage to speak truth to power?
What I see, in other words, is not a left-right difference in the strength of a generic threat response; it’s a difference in the time-scale at which threats are perceived. The Right reacts more strongly to immediate threats; the Left, to longer-term ones. That’s my impression, anyway.
Of course, I could be wrong. If I’m not, though, the time-scale element could be a significant confound and it doesn’t look as though Smith and Hibbing addressed it in their study. Until someone does, I’ll continue to cling to the belief that my leanings are at least more liberal than Rick Santorum’s.
Maybe we’ll know on the 23rd.
*Not very convincingly, I’ll admit.