In a series of experiments, researchers closely monitored physiological reactions and eye movements of study participants when shown combinations of both pleasant and unpleasant images. Conservatives reacted more strongly to, fixated more quickly on, and looked longer at the unpleasant images; liberals had stronger reactions to and looked longer at the pleasant images compared with conservatives.
To gauge participants’ physiological responses, they were shown a series of images on a screen. Electrodes measured subtle skin conductance changes, which indicated an emotional response. The cognitive data, meanwhile, was gathered by outfitting participants with eyetracking equipment that captured even the most subtle of eye movements while combinations of unpleasant and pleasant photos appeared on the screen.
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.
Consistent with the idea that conservatives seem to respond more to negative stimuli while liberals respond more to positive stimuli, conservatives also exhibited a stronger physiological response to images of Democratic politicians — presumed to be a negative to them — than they did on pictures of well-known Republicans. Liberals, on the other hand, had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats — presumed to be a positive stimulus to them — than they did to images of the Republicans.
By studying both physiological and cognitive aspects, the researchers established unique new insights into the growing notion that political leanings are at least partial products of our biology, UNL political scientist and study co-author Kevin Smith said.
UNL political scientist and co-author John Hibbing said the results might mean that those on the right are more attuned and attentive to aversive elements in life and are more naturally inclined to confront them. From an evolutionary standpoint, that makes sense, he said.
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), Hibbing said.
What we’re reading from is a press release, and there is no link to the original study. Taking that into account, the claim as presented here is entirely useless.
First, there is no defense whatever of biological causation. Self-identified liberal and conservatives react differently to images. The cause of that could be anything, but a likely surmise would be that the differences in their responses are accounted for by their political and philosophical differences.
Second, correlation is not causation. To say that there is a difference in the way that conservatives and liberals respond to things (yet another Deathgrip-on-the-Obvious) is to say nothing. You could make precisely the same claims by exchanging conservative/liberal with old/young. More: Self-identified conservatives of all ages will “test” much older than self-identified liberals using exactly the same images and test equipment. If you want to paper your wall with still another useless PhD, you can run this test, but we all know I am right about this without having to test for it.
Third, neither their test or mine is even a true correlation, since there is no attempt to relate anything to anything else. At best, we are describing correspondences that may or may not be worth thinking about. Similar correspondences, all of which can be used to generate even more useless PhDs: Liberals will tend to be faster drivers, sloppier eaters and poorer bookkeepers than conservatives.
Are you looking for a real — and interesting — correlation? Rank self-identified liberals and conservatives according to the range-of-time in their decision-making. It will turn out, when your new PhD certificate comes out of the laser printer, that liberals — and teenagers — work from a much shorter time-horizon than do conservatives — and retirees.
All of this is just another example of pre-fab social science “news” story number two: “Your good behavior is not to your credit, but at least your bad behavior is not your fault!”
This particular “study” is especially insidious, though, since it absolves liberals for doing what they do already: Ignore objections to their policy initiatives. Why listen to the complaints of conservatives? It’s just their biology talking, anyway.
Every argument of moral determinism is absurd on its face: If your response to my actions is pre-determined by your biology (or your hormones, brain chemistry, genes, defective genes, brain defects, drugs, pheromones, memes, et infinitely cetera), then the state of both our minds, now and in the future, is not subject to voluntary, self-initiated change. I cannot persuade you of my case, and you can neither be persuaded nor sway me to your side instead. We are both alike and equally robots making random sounds neither of us can comprehend.
Do you agree? Disagree? Excellent! Either way, if you contend that your mental state matters, it could only be because your consciousness is not deterministic.
Remember this argument. You can deploy it against any “news” article of this type.
And for the authors of the original study (or at least of the press release), I have this: Either you are making a claim that is itself subject to test by minds possessed of free will or your paper is simply an unavoidable artifact of your biology, like any other pile of crap.