Conservatives Might Not Have A More Potent Fear Response Than Liberals After All

Terrifying SceneBy guest blogger Jesse Singal

If you follow mainstream science coverage, you have likely heard by now that many scientists believe that the differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t just ideological, but biological or neurological. That is, these differences are driven by deeply-seated features of our bodies and minds which exist prior to any sort of conscious evaluation of a given issue.

Lately, though, follow-up research has been poking some holes in this general theory. In November, for example, Emma Young wrote about findings which undermined past suggestions that conservatives are more readily disgusted than liberals. More broadly, as I wrote in 2018, there’s a burgeoning movement in social and political psychology to re-evaluate some of the strongest claims about liberal-conservative personality differences, with at least some evidence to suggest that the nature and magnitude of these differences has been overblown by shoddy or biased research.

Now, a new study set to appear in the Journal of Politics and available in preprint here suggests that another key claim about liberal-conservative differences may be less sturdy than it appears.

Many researchers have argued that people are more likely to endorse conservatism if they want to reduce feelings of threat in their lives, note the authors, led by Mathias Osmundsen at Aarhus University. “In this view, so-called ‘threat-sensitive’ individuals find the order inherent in a conservative ideology attractive,” they write.

Political scientists’ favored method of measuring threat-sensitivity in recent years has been so-called psychophysiological studies, which gauge how the body responds to what is going on in the mind. The key studies here measure participants’ skin conductance (also known as electrodermal activity, or EDA), using electrodes attached to the fingertips. This provides an index of automatic bodily arousal. A big turning point came in 2008, when Douglas Oxley and his colleagues found that conservatives had higher EDA than liberals when viewing threatening images, including pictures of spiders, maggots and guns, and several studies with similar findings have since been published.

For this new study, Osmundsen and colleagues sought to investigate the reliability of these results. The paper is a three-part effort consisting of a replication attempt, with a much larger sample size, on a group of Danes and Americans; a re-analysis of all the previously published studies on this subject with an eye toward ascertaining their quality; and a more zoomed-out evaluation of the instruments being used by researchers to do this sort of work.

What the team found suggests a field very much in need of some refinement. Some of the issues here are rather fundamental: For example, they write, “EDA is influenced by a range of factors that are likely to vary randomly and arbitrarily across individuals … includ[ing] outside noises, deep breaths, coughs, room temperature, bodily movements, thickness of the skin of the fingertips, pre-experiment arousal (e.g., from having biked to the lab) and so forth.” Researchers are simply assuming that measures of EDA are (more or less) good proxies for fear responses, ignoring a host of other factors that potentially introduce a great deal of noise. Because the extant literature so rarely indicates that these factors have been taken into account, the team writes, “we simply do not know if measures of EDA in political science research are empirically reliable.”

The literature fails to answer other important questions as well, argue the authors, like whether EDA responses to positive imagery mirror those to scary imagery, which would suggest it isn’t really fear being measured, at root, but arousal more generally. Indeed, a more recent theory has argued that conservatives may be more easily aroused than liberals, rather than more attuned to threat specifically.

The replication study was also an attempt to shed light on some of these questions by evaluating the reliability of the EDA measurement procedure itself, simply by comparing and correlating the participants’ EDA responses to various positive and negative stimuli.

The researchers found that their EDA measures were “very unreliable.” For example, there was almost no internal consistency when it came to responses to threatening (or to disgusting) stimuli, suggesting that whatever EDA is measuring, it isn’t a threat response. But the data were consistent with the idea that the EDA tests were measuring “individual differences in baseline physiological reactivity.” And although the researchers were able to replicate the correlation between conservatism and heightened EDA responses to negative stimuli in their American sample, there was no such correlation among Danish participants. (Another study out this week in Nature Human Behaviour failed to replicate the correlation among Dutch or American participants). This suggests that the original finding may not be generalizable to the wider population.

Interestingly, when the researchers simply asked the participants to gauge their explicit response to the imagery, they found sturdier correlations. “In contrast to physiological responses to threat, self-reported reactions to the threatening images were associated in both Denmark and the United States with more conservative beliefs, but only significantly so for the two measures that arguably reflect social [rather than fiscal] conservatism[.]”

So where does all this leave us? It appears that the tools used to measure fear-sensitivity in many previous studies might not be measuring that at all. This, of course, does not mean that there are no arousal-based differences between liberals and conservatives; it could be there are some good-sized and robust ones, for all we know. But the mixed results of the replication attempt suggest that even this weaker claim is far from certain. They also suggest that, while measures of automatic (or implicit) responses are very ‘in’ right now, they aren’t necessarily a better or more meaningful tool than simply asking people how they feel.

The Psychophysiology of Political Ideology: Replications, Reanalysis and Recommendations [this study is a preprint meaning that it has yet to be subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version on which this report was based]

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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2 thoughts on “Conservatives Might Not Have A More Potent Fear Response Than Liberals After All”

  1. Interesting, but the differences in political opinion are generally more complex than a straight “liberal vs conservative” divide, and certainly in the UK and Europe. It seems that there is a move away from the traditional Left vs Right, UK Labour vs Conservative, etc. political divisions. The political fault lines now appear to divide more along the Somewheres vs Anywheres, or national populists versus the globalist elites, than the traditional camps that these types of studies still want to investigate. It is good that these older studies are being examined more critically in the light of new evidence, and it would also be nice to see the political groupings brought up to date.

  2. I really am surprised that the author can get away with citing one study to make a big claim.

    It does not appear that the author has had any psychological training, or has bothered to do a search for evidence. in addition, it does not appear to me that the author understands the value of converging evidence.

    Let us look at neuroscience research.

    It is clear from work on neuroscience for many decades that emotion, and the perception of that is processed by the amygdala. Now, if one were to make a prediction as to whether liberals of conservative minded people would have more grey matter in this region, a reasonable hypothesis is that conservatives would possess greater grey matter. Well the evidence is substantial and robust, with initial studies that supported this by Amodio et al. (2007), and replications by Kanai et al. (2011). More recently, Pedersen et al. 2018, were able to confirm and more precisely locate the area in the amygdala that mediates this negativity bias. Yet more supporting evidence was produced by Nam et al. (2018). Interestingly, they showed that grey matter volume was associated with greater system justification support, for existing hierarchical structure, and a preference for the status quo. Disturbing the status quo would be disconcerting for people and other animals.

    In terms of political ideology and prejudice, there has been a substantial amount of recent work that has focused upon negativity bias. This was prefigured by Freud initially who thought that the prejudiced person was a fearful one. Likewise, Allport produced a number of characteristics that had at its root being fearful. It was in the 1980s that Bob Altemyer developed reliable scales to measure right wing authoritarianism RWA. High scorers were people who submitted to authority, preferred tradition, and were aggressive towards outgrip members. Later, Duckitt & Sibley, (2008, 2009, 2017), developed a dual process theory of prejudice that has been well supported as a predictor of prejudice. One contributor to being prejudiced was perceiving the world as a dangerous place. People who perceived the world as a dangerous place were more likely to score higher on RWA, and be prejudiced. This theory has been supported in a meta analysis.

    Epistemology is important, that is, our confidence in our knowledge. Our confidence increases considerably, if hypotheses and theories are supported by meta analysis. Converging evidence is another way to increase our confidence. This is what is employed in support of the theory of evolution. In relation to negativity bias, there is considerable converging evidence.

    Methods that employ physiological emotion based measuring are problematic, (Stangor, 2016) due to difficulties in interpreting. The data on prejudice, and voting are vast, and so they are more significant. Jost and Kruchick (2014) cite a vast amount of literature that indicates that conservatives tend to suffer more from death or existential anxiety, in experimental studies. The theory behind this is called terror management theory or TMT. To reduce this anxiety.negativity, it appears that conservatives engage in ways to boost self-esteem, and in efforts to main current structural orders, and in being motivated to form more fixed beliefs. This has also been supported by considerable work in a related concept called the need for closure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). People who score high on this measure seek definite answers to questions, regardless of accuracy, rather than endure ambiguity (Kryglanski, 2009). And conservatives tend to score higher on this measure (Van Hiel, 2004). The prospect of changing beliefs seems threatening to these people.

    These findings were supported in recent elections, for Trump, whose supporters scored higher in RWA (Choma & Hanoch, 2016). Higher RWA, and more fearful people tended to vote for Trump. RWA was also associated with the Brexit vote (Zimigrod et al. 2018), and fear of immigration was one of the main drivers of the leave vote (Goodwin & Ford, 2016; Goodwin, 2017, Goodwin, 2018), especially Islamaphobia (Swami, 2018).

    In addition, there is copious evidence, again pan nationally, that uncertainty, and the fearfulness, inclines people to score higher on the need for closure (Kruglanski, 2009), and conservatism (Jost et al. 2007; Has, 2016), and initially Weber (1947), where he argued that demagogues and charismatic people can take power and assume leadership in uncertain times. This is why, the Romans appointed a dictator, when it was under threat. The findings show that conservatives are more likely to follow a strong leader, because of the higher perceived threat (Altemyer, 1996, 2006).

    So, when making a strong claim, that seems to go against many different theories that have their own supporting research, it is probably best not to give too much weight to an unpublished study. What we do know in relating to fear, and voting patterns, as well as attitude surveys, have been meta analysed, and appear to be robust in different countries. In addition, they are also supported by neuropsychological evidence using fMRI’s, that look at brain structure. For example in Zimogrod’s study, Brexit voters were slower to realise that there was a change of rule in a go/no go cognitive experiment, meaning that they were poorer at spotting the need for change, and preferred their routine status quo responses. This was did to the ACC, responsible for monitoring the outside world, or reality.

    What has not been researched is to test potential breaches in values. I suspect there may be differences here, and that liberals, because they have a greater need or proclivity to assess the outside world for the need for change, may be more sensitive to climate change, and it may evoke a specific response in the amygdala. However, we should distinguish a specific evocation, from a generalised tendency, and it is here that I think the reported study is flawed. The methodology is poor, and did not attempt to use multiple methods.

    The supporting evidence is much more extensive than I have reported here. I just wanted to place a study in context. A critical thinker would ask the question, well if this finding is true, what would it mean? If the conclusion of this study is true, then the authors would have a hard time explain a mountain of evidence that points to a contrary conclusion.

    I would recommend that the BPS digest refrain from accepting people without psychological backgrounds publishing articles that ignores pretty much all of the research evidence. It paints the BPS in a poor light, and psychological research generally. It smacks a little of tabloid journalism, if that is not an oxymoron.

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