Research & Insights

Conservatives and Liberals Will Probably Disagree About Why They Disagree

People who hope that conservatives and liberals can get past their disagreements to get more done will find little comfort in a new study that suggests that different political outlooks may be hard wired into our brains.

“Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA,” write political scientists John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of University of Nebraska-Lincoln and John Alford of Rice University, in the June 2014 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“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,” says Alford, one the study’s authors.

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.

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.

“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.”

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, June 2014

John R. Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln
John R. Alford, Rice University

Posted: August 8, 2014
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