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This Machine Can Tell Whether You're Liberal or Conservative
April 9, 2014 5:36 AM   Subscribe

John Hibbing and his colleagues are pioneering research on the physiological underpinnings of political ideology. They also eat worms. - via Mother Jones
posted by jim in austin (33 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought I was a liberal, but I had a pretty hard time with the worm-eating picture, and when I went to the 4-picture link, I focused on the hand injury. (But I maintain it was out of sympathy rather than disgust)
posted by MtDewd at 6:05 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


My first reaction is that while there's interesting things going on here, there's some slippage between correlation and causation in their interpretations of the data, and perhaps the way they frame their questions, or perhaps its just the language of the MJ article; that is, reading genetics as cause/determinant of political ideology, rather than seeing a dynamic interrelation between nature/nurture.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:08 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Executive summary: Conservatives are scaredy-cats with weak stomachs.
posted by TedW at 6:21 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS
posted by Quilford at 6:25 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


The more interesting result in the science paper is that education lowers fear responses.

School makes you cool people!
posted by srboisvert at 6:30 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


School makes you cool people!

Or, possibly, teaches you that there are worse things than death.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:31 AM on April 9 [7 favorites]


Any "machine" could predict this within a reasonable confidence interval by asking one question:

"Do you live in a city?"
posted by dry white toast at 6:34 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]


I think this is actually pretty interesting stuff, and possibly has some basis in reality - but I really hate the moralizing around it. It's very possible that different people have different biological triggers for fight or flight. It's possible that in many different environments, different responses were necessary. Perhaps in more threatening environments, attention to potential threat was more valuable, while in less threatening but more difficult ones, attention to threat took valuable time away from planting, etc.

Haidt's work, which is mentioned only briefly here, has a lot of solidity behind it - how different people prioritize different moral priorities. The six moral foundations have a lot of relevance as well for political positions. If some people fundamentally consider loyalty/betrayal more important, and others rate care/harm as more important, there is literally no way that any amount of talking will get them to agree on many subjects. It's not a matter of "not understanding" or "not being informed", which I think is the tempting thing to argue - that people who are wrong would change their mind if they only knew more.

It does raise interesting questions though, particularly towards the end - if people are born with genetically different tolerances and thus essentially their political beliefs, isn't it discrimination to be prejudiced against them?
posted by corb at 6:45 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


I thought I was a liberal, but I had a pretty hard time with the worm-eating picture, and when I went to the 4-picture link, I focused on the hand injury. (But I maintain it was out of sympathy rather than disgust)

For me, it went like this:

Hand injury: Ouch! Don't wanna see that!
Poop: Gross! Look somewhere else.
Ballerinas: Ugh, children! Get 'em away from me!
Corn cob with flies: Ah, that's neutral and unprovocative. I can look at that.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:07 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


Saxon Kane sums up my response to the article nicely.

I wonder if this might explain the tendency of some social conservatives to come around on issues such as homosexuality only when it affects them directly, such as a child coming out. It's easier to be disgusted in the abstract, when you can assign a negative moral value to the Other, but when it's someone in your own house who shares your blood, you're forced to cognitively prioritize between those negative abstract feelings and immediate, tangible love or loyalty to family.
posted by echocollate at 7:50 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


I thought I was a liberal, but I had a pretty hard time with the worm-eating picture

I'm pretty liberal, and I thought the worm-eating picture was hilarious. So I guess I'm on the right track.

I find it a bit troubling to consider that my political dispositions were largely determined by my DNA, but how else could it be?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:50 AM on April 9


I've taken a couple of classes with Dr. Hibbing and can attest that he really is an engaging guy doing some fascinating research. In my opinion, one of the more interesting studies that he has done revolves around the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress. He found that people with higher levels of cortisol, more prone to stress, are less likely to vote, go into politics, or engage with the political process. At the same time, many politicians and people who are active politically are likely to have lower levels of cortisol.

And for those who are interested, here is a link to a Daily Show clip that features Hibbing and the research discussed in the article.
posted by holmesian at 8:02 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


if people are born with genetically different tolerances and thus essentially their political beliefs, isn't it discrimination to be prejudiced against them?

*snort*
posted by octobersurprise at 8:03 AM on April 9


> Any "machine" could predict this within a reasonable confidence interval by asking one question:
>
> "Do you live in a city?"

I think you would have to ask more specifically, to narrow down which part of the Blade Runner cities your subjects call home. "Do you actually live in the city, or do you live in one of those high-rise gated communities with locked lobbies that are technically inside the city limits, where you'll find so many of the nominal Democrats who elected Michael Stop-n-Frisk Bloomberg?"


> *snort*

Rejecting "born that way", are we? OK.
posted by jfuller at 8:35 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Hm. It just listed me as "Social Liberal" and "Not Numberwang."

Odd.
posted by schmod at 8:46 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS

"You are!"
"Nuh, uh! You are!"
posted by brundlefly at 8:56 AM on April 9


This Machine Classifies Fascists
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:09 AM on April 9 [12 favorites]


Rejecting "born that way", are we? OK.

You don't even deserve an eye-roll.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:17 AM on April 9


The research may be good and interesting, but casting it as an opposition betweel liberals and conservatives does it a disservice and makes me think that it is an instance of that WEIRD thing [pdf], only in reverse: that the Americal political landscape roughly in the 2nd half of the 20th century can be deduced from human physiology. This opposition both has different meanings today in different cultures, or does not even exist in them, and certainly did not exist in the past. I suppose other classifications are amenable to similar studies, but this particular instance feels utterly parochial.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:41 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


(But I maintain it was out of sympathy rather than disgust)

Commie.
posted by goethean at 9:49 AM on April 9


You know, if there are real biological differences, a virus could probably be genetically tailored to only attack people with the characteristics of one viewpoint or the other.

Just saying.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 10:45 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


So let's think about this.

Conservatism is in their DNA. I mean - we're at a point where we can see the nature part of the nature nurture debate in politics. That's awesome. Sexual orientation? That's in there too. People are born that way as well. Now being gay can be the result of a heterosexual couple or a gay couple. Likewise being straight can be the result of being in a heterosexual or gay couple. Now think about this. In the red states - those states are red. The mindset is forced - compliance is sort of heavy handed. It is ingrained in your family and culture. Quite likely - this is against the very nature of many of these children. Despite knowing better at one age - they are secretly ashamed of their upbringing, and they are in a position where they must be as conservative as possible in order to be conservative... And the crazier they get, the more they are really crying out for political acceptance, and for someone to help them embrace their inner and suppressed liberal.

That's right folks, Paul Ryan really just wants to be a liberal - he just needs a hug. The more he runs away from nationalized healthcare, the more he really wants it. He's just afraid to admit it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:47 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]


Now now, to be fair, Nanukthedog, there's papers upon evo psych papers out there according which the truest and purest, least culturally and societally influenced adaptations to Pleistocene savannah conditions were expressed among 1950s American conservatives. Fancy that, huh!
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:56 AM on April 9


Metafilter: The mindset is forced - compliance is sort of heavy handed

Like indoctrination is unique to the conservative mindset...I think you might need to get out more.
posted by bartonlong at 11:40 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Like indoctrination is unique to the conservative mindset

Modern Conservatism, at it's root, is believing so little in the power of your ideas that only militant enforcement of narrow social expectations can lead to a proper society. It's the idea that unites Wahhabism and the Southern Baptists. Not only will they cut you out of your own family for being different, but they will try to make your nonconformist ways illegal, and when they are really in control, they will happily put you to death for breaking the laws of the "chosen" culture that they have decided to enforce.

This is a stark contrast to forming laws that respect more than one culture, which is typical of most -- but not all -- progressive, democratic mindsets.
posted by deanklear at 11:53 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


A manipulative political hack could put this information to good use...
posted by jim in austin at 12:36 PM on April 9


This is powerful, interesting work. And, Jim in Austin's comment is apropos. In fact, this research and other research like it has been (and will continue to be) put to use by political parties, corporations, etc. etc. to further enable the delivery of, and belief in, their messaging.

If you think Hibbing's work is interesting, you absolutely must read through the following:

Another person who has been doing interesting work in this area for quite some time is George Lakoff. His book, The Political Mind uses Cognitive Science research to show the same things that Hibbing is showing. Lakoff's book can be dry in some places, but it was probably one of the most rewarding reads I've ever had in relation to political thought, process, and understanding different political frameworks. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Lackoff:
Interviewer: "Back up for a second and explain what you mean by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks."

Lackoff: "Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

"The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world."



Here's Lakoff's Huff Post feed


A good piece in the Guardian

More on Lackoff, including links to his other publications

Highly recommended! "Think Like a Democrat"
posted by Vibrissae at 1:28 PM on April 9 [6 favorites]


I would be intrigued to see this study performed internationally, especially in places which lack an analogous lib/con spectrum.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:00 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Two things:

1. Let's say it's biology that makes a person conservative or liberal. But biology can also predispose a person toward becoming a psychopathic serial killer.

The kind of behavior that wants to put queer people to death, starve the poor for the benefit of the rich, deny climate change and evolution, start wars on a flimsy pretext, and so on, is not to be tolerated regardless of the reason behind it.

2. "Primal, gut emotion" that is involuntarily is probably still not 100% genetic, deterministic, and without learned behavior. IIRC, there were studies done where captive-born monkeys did not necessarily know to fear snakes, without being taught to -- though it was easier to condition them to fear a rubber snake than a rubber ball.

I'd like to see twin studies done on this. (Identical twins raised separately by families with opposing political views.)

Fears, no matter how involuntary the reaction may be, can be learned and unlearned. I was ridiculously afraid of dogs when I was a child, but I live with two now and they're pretty great.
posted by Foosnark at 2:03 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Time to identify a few chemicals that can block the relevant conservative or liberal physiological responses. Democracy in pill form.
posted by humanfont at 7:05 PM on April 9


>Time to identify a few chemicals that can block the relevant conservative or liberal physiological responses. Democracy in pill form.

It's called Prozac.
posted by j03 at 6:59 AM on April 10


It's called Prozac.

I believe you mean Prozium.
posted by corb at 7:40 AM on April 10


On the Precipice of a “Majority-Minority” America: Perceived Status Threat From the Racial Demographic Shift Affects White Americans’ Political Ideology
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that racial minority groups will make up a majority of the U.S. national population in 2042, effectively creating a so-called majority-minority nation. In four experiments, we explored how salience of such racial demographic shifts affects White Americans’ political-party leanings and expressed political ideology. Study 1 revealed that making California’s majority-minority shift salient led politically unaffiliated White Americans to lean more toward the Republican Party and express greater political conservatism. Studies 2, 3a, and 3b revealed that making the changing national racial demographics salient led White Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly. Moreover, the results implicate group-status threat as the mechanism underlying these effects. Taken together, this work suggests that the increasing diversity of the nation may engender a widening partisan divide.
also previous post on Democracy Corps study.

Primates.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:48 AM on April 10 [1 favorite]


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