It’s all a game, isn’t it. I received an interesting comment on my post which requires a longer reply than the customary responses to comments. Commenter RightKlik wrote,

“It looks like you’ve missed the irony of harboring bigoted attitudes toward conservatives on the basis of a study that purports to show that conservatives are inferior — as evidenced by their low IQ bigotry.

First, let me correct your statement. The study does not claim that conservatives are inferior; it does claim that children born with low IQ are more prone to harbor conservative worldviews. Without belaboring the obvious point, writers like David Brooks, Irving Kristol and Bill Kristol, Bill Buckley, the Austrian economic school, and so on -these are people with IQs that are probably off the charts. I would even include some of the  congressional leaders and some of the presidential candidates as not lacking in intelligence, although their integrity and intellectual honesty is a different matter.

The research showing that people with low IQ tend to embrace conservative viewpoints is so far correlative, so that any claim of cause/effect relationship should be taken with a grain of salt. I will enumerate some of the potential pitfalls in jumping to sweeping conclusions. But first, let’s have a look at the data.

The two studies by Hodson, reviewed in my post, were conducted in the U.K. The population was drawn from a group of children whose IQ was measured at age 10 or 11, and whose views on social issues and racism were measured at ages 30-34. The venue of the study is important. Unlike the U.S., British conservative extremists are few and far between, and are socially marginalized. (In fact, British leftist extremists are much more prevalent, and their psycho-talk matches the American conservative counterpart in virulence and hatred). So the likelihood that the conservative sample was weighted with extremists is quite low.

The fear factor

A 2008 study by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) found that people who are highly responsive to threatening images were likely to support conservative views.

The study involved 46 Nebraska residents, chosen for having strong political beliefs from a larger population of randomly selected individuals. The participants answered survey questions on political beliefs, personality traits and demographics.

A couple of months later, the same participants underwent tests for their so-called startle reflexes. The researchers measured levels of skin moisture as indicators of stress and anxiety for each participant as he or she looked at threatening images, including a large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it. Similarly, participants also viewed three non-threatening images (a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child) placed within a series of other images.

The researchers also measured the intensity of the participants’ eye blinks in response to sudden, jarring noises. Harder blinks are linked with a heightened state of fear, the researchers say.

Participants who scored high on the skin and blinking stress tests also tended to support military spending, warrantless searches, death penalty, the Patriot Act, obedience, patriotism, the Iraq War, school prayer and the concept of Biblical truth. And they tended to oppose pacifism, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, compromise, premarital sex, gay marriage, abortion rights and pornography.

Those who were less startled by threatening images and noises were more likely to favor foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control.

A study by Cornell University’s David Pizarro and his colleagues found that People who squirm at the sight of bugs or are grossed out by blood and guts are more likely to be politically conservative. In particular, the squeamish are more apt to have conservative attitudes about gays and lesbians.  The findings were reported in 2009 in the journal Cognition & Emotion.

More recently, Kevin Smith, John hibbings and their colleagues  at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, linked the “icky” response with physiological evidence, and with political leanings.

The researchers selected 50 individuals from a random sample in order to have an equal number of people who were politically right- and left-leaning, as well as those who avoided politics altogether. Participants had an average age of 41, split fairly evenly between males and females, and had an average annual income between $40,000 and $60,000.

As the participants looked at a series of 38 images that ranged from pleasant to unpleasant, their skin conductance was measured, which is a gauge of the level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that activates the automatic “fight or flight” response in surprising situations.

The participants also answered questions to gauge their political views. The results showed, as predicted, that those who indicated conservative political views, and specifically were more likely to oppose same-sex marriage, responded to the icky pictures with much more intense disgust than did liberals.


What could be the explanation for the physiological relationship between disgust and conservative political views?

Scientists think some level of disgust sensitivity is “normal,” and helps us along with our human ancestors avoid disease. “The role of disgust in the avoidance of disease, one of the primary sources of mortality over the centuries, makes it essential to survival,” the researchers write the October 2011 issue of the online journal PLoS ONE.

and the connection to political views? One possiblity is that emotions dictate our reactions; for instance,  fear is linked to vigilance and preparedness (hence the obsession with the threat of jihadists, communists, socialists, even the U.N.), while disgust is linked to steering clear of any sort of contamination, “foreign looking” things, or possibly even strange people. As such, people who are more easily disgusted may be more likely to take on political views that help them avoid these “disgusting” situations.

Plausible, but is there any biological evidence to butress this hypothesis?

Professor Ryota Kanai of the University College London and his colleagues  found that volunteers who identified themselves as liberal tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain linked with monitoring uncertainty, which could help them cope with conflicting information. On the other hand, those who identified themselves as conservative have a larger amygdala, an area linked with greater sensitivity to fear and disgust. I wonder if Rush limbaugh would donate his brain to science. His amygdala is bound to break all records.

Is it all biology?

Of course not. political views are also shaped by culture, education, religion, upbringing, life experiences,even economics. We even have a rough idea how much of political leaning is cultural and how much is genetic.  John Jost, a psychologist at New York University conducted a meta-analysis of previous studies involving a total of more than 22,000 participants from 12 countries (American Psychologist, May, 2007). What he found is that the psychological/social factors account for only half when it comes to determining people’s politics. The other half is genetic, as is revealed in studies of twins and their political bent.

These are the facts. We can try and punch holes in individual studies, but the weight of the accumulating evidence is just too overwhelming to deny.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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