Friday, September 19, 2008

Startle Reflex Clue to Politics


Hmmm.  Here's the latest study findings: people who react to survival threats tend to align themselves with conservative groups, and people who don't react to threats tend to aggregate with liberal groups.

That's interesting.  Could it be possible then, that as societies become increasingly stable, providing protection to those who in a less stable environment would have perished in Darwinian fashion, that the society's overall population then evolves towards liberalism? Ultimately, as that liberal population outnumbers the conservatives, could the society then become overcome by adversarial threats that the conservatives would have protected against?  Nah!

Anyway, it's an interesting study result that some of the talking heads in the media may have fun with...
Why do people have the attitudes they do toward social issues such as welfare, abortion, immigration, gay rights, school prayer, and capital punishment? The conventional explanations have to do with their economic circumstances, families, friends, and educations. But new research suggests that people with radically different social attitudes also differ in certain automatic fear responses. Political scientists say the work is evidence that certain attitudes are conditioned by fundamental traits of temperament, which could help explain why it's hard to get a donkey or an elephant to change its coloring.

Quite a bit is known about the physiology of response to threat, and some of this can be measured by simple noninvasive tests. So the researchers, headed by Douglas Oxley of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, decided to test the idea that liberal and conservative (or "protective") social beliefs are related to individuals' sensitivity to threat.
The researchers found that both of these responses correlated significantly with whether a person was liberal or conservative socially. Subjects who had expressed a high level of support for policies "protecting the social unit" showed a much larger change in skin conductance in response to alarming photos than those who didn't support such policies. Similarly, the mean blink amplitude for the socially protective subjects was significantly higher, the team reports in tomorrow's issue of Science. Co-author Kevin Smith says the results showed that automatic fear responses are better predictors of protective attitudes than sex or age (men and older people tend to be more conservative).

How are body and belief connected? The authors point out that family and twin studies have revealed strong genetic influences both for liberal-versus-conservative views and for people's sensitivity to threat. They speculate that the correlation could have something to do with the patterns of neural activity surrounding the amygdala, the seat of fear in the brain.
"These findings are extremely important," says political scientist James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, who has been doing research linking certain gene variations to political activity. "In essence, the authors have filled in a 'missing link' between genes and brains on the one hand and psychological personalities and political attitudes on the other."


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