Conservative vs. Liberal: Are we born that way?

Credit: University Communications, University of Nebraska-Lincoln/Craig Chandler

Pictured are University of Nebraska-Lincoln political
scientists Kevin Smith, left, and John Hibbing, right.

Do people make a rational choice to be liberal or conservative? Do their mothers raise them that way? Is it a matter of genetics?

The answer to this question impacts our understanding of the most basic human traits that we each exhibit.  Are we all like Lady Gaga, and born that way?  Or, are we raised that way?  Or do we make conscious decisions about our attitude?

It's said that freedom of attitude is the only true freedom we have.  Do we really have a choice in the matter?  Or is out attitude preset by the genetic codes in our cells. 

This is a question that impacts not only our own lives, but the lives of the characters we create.  If attitude and trait is established before we're born, how do you explain people that change so dramatically over the course of a story arc?

There's a lot to think about here, not just conservative or liberal politics, but at core, our own happiness and achievement are at stake.

It's the old predestination argument, now applied to our genetic make up.

Two political scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a colleague from Rice University say that neither conscious decision-making nor parental upbringing fully explain why some people lean left while others lean right.

A growing body of evidence shows that physiological responses and deep-seated psychology are at the core of political differences.

"Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA."

"Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA," says the article written by political scientists John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of UNL and John Alford of Rice University.

"These natural tendencies to perceive the physical world in different ways may in turn be responsible for striking moments of political and ideological conflict throughout history," Alford said.

Conservatives react more intensely to negative stimuli
Using eye-tracking equipment and skin conductance detectors, the three researchers have observed that conservatives tend to have more intense reactions to negative stimuli, such as photos of people eating worms, burning houses or maggot-infested wounds.

Combining their own results with similar findings from other researchers around the world, the team proposes that this so-called "negativity bias" may be a common factor that helps define the difference between conservatives, with their emphasis on stability and order, and liberals, with their emphasis on progress and innovation.

"Across research methods, samples and countries, conservatives have been found to be quicker to focus on the negative, to spend longer looking at the negative, and to be more distracted by the negative," the researchers wrote.

Conservatives are happier than liberals
The researchers caution that they make no value judgments about this finding. In fact, some studies show that conservatives, despite their quickness to detect threats, are happier overall than liberals. And all people, whether liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, tend to be more alert to the negative than to the positive -- for good evolutionary reasons. The harm caused by negative events, such as infection, injury and death, often outweighs the benefits brought by positive events.

Suggested reading
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"We see the 'negativity bias' as a common finding that emerges from a large body of empirical studies done not just by us, but by many other research teams around the world," Smith explained. "We make the case in this article that negativity bias clearly and consistently separates liberals from conservatives."

The most notable feature about the negativity bias is not that it exists, but that it varies so much from person to person, the researchers said.

"Conservatives are fond of saying 'liberals just don't get it,' and liberals are convinced that conservatives magnify threats," Hibbing said. "Systematic evidence suggests both are correct."
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Story Source: Materials provided by University of Nebraska-Lincoln. John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, John R. Alford. Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2014


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