Friday, September 19, 2008

Study Links Political Attitudes to Startle Reflex

Hmmm . . . interesting, but I am clearly an anomaly in this research (see below).

Political attitudes are predicted by physiological traits

Is America's red-blue divide based on voters' physiology?

HOUSTON -- (Sept. 16, 2008) -- Is America's red-blue divide based on voters' physiology? A new paper in the journal Science, titled "Political Attitudes Are Predicted by Physiological Traits," explores the link.

Rice University's John Alford, associate professor of political science, co-authored the paper in the Sept. 19 issue of Science.

Alford and his colleagues studied a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs. Those individuals with "measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War," the authors wrote.

Participants were chosen randomly over the phone in Lincoln, Neb. Those expressing strong political views -- regardless of their content -- were asked to fill out a questionnaire on their political beliefs, personality traits and demographic characteristics.

In a later session, they were attached to physiological measuring equipment and shown three threatening images (a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it) interspersed among a sequence of 33 images. Similarly, participants also viewed three nonthreatening images (a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child) placed within a series of other images. A second test used auditory stimuli to measure involuntary responses to a startling noise.

The researchers noted a correlation between those who reacted strongly to the stimuli and those who expressed support for "socially protective policies," which tend to be held by people "particularly concerned with protecting the interests of the participants' group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats." These positions include support for military spending, warrantless searches, the death penalty, the Patriot Act, obedience, patriotism, the Iraq War, school prayer and Biblical truth, and opposition to pacifism, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, compromise, premarital sex, gay marriage, abortion rights and pornography.

The paper concluded, "Political attitudes vary with physiological traits linked to divergent manners of experiencing and processing environmental threats." This may help to explain "both the lack of malleability in the beliefs of individuals with strong political convictions and the associated ubiquity of political conflict," the authors said.


Alford's co-authors were Douglas R. Oxley, Kevin B. Smith, Jennifer L. Miller, John R. Hibbing and Mario Scalora, of the University of Nebraska; Matthew V. Hibbing, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Peter K. Hatemi, of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

I startle very easily, but I am very liberal in my thinking, conforming more to those with a low startle reflex. So I guess this another of those "gee, that's interesting" studies that offer correlations more than anything else.

However, pretending for a minute this study reveals something meaningful, it might have more to do with experiences of trauma or maladaptive bonding.

Those who experiences certain forms of trauma, like sudden environmental disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes) are more likely to have heightened startle reflexes than those who haven't. This could also make people more conservative in their thinking.

Another possibility is maladaptive bonding can make people more sensitive to environmental surprises and also more conservative (read: fearful) in their thinking.

With such a vague study, it's hard to make any meaningful conclusions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I don't fit the pattern, either. I'm very liberal, and I also startle very easily (much to the amusement of others sometimes).

I would have thought that overly sensitive people (including those who startle easily) would be more likely to shy away from some of those conservative values.

Then again, 46 people is hardly a great representation of the population.