Kudos to my colleagues (and occasional opponents on the basketball court), whose work was featured on The Economist’s Science and Technology blog a couple of days ago. Here is what they’ve been up to for a few years now:
According to one famous study, conservatives are not just more god-fearing than liberals (as Americans call left-leaning folk). They are more fearful in general, making them more receptive to threatening aspects of the environment. Hence, the argument goes, their penchant for tougher policing, harsher sentencing, stronger armed forces and other Republican shibboleths.
However, this observation does not by itself explain liberals’ preoccupation with progressive policies which often aim to make people’s lives more pleasant, as opposed to less unpleasant. Michael Dodd, of the University of Nebraska, wondered whether this is because they are drawn more strongly than conservatives are to the bright side of life. As he and his colleagues report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, this does in fact appear to be the case.
To arrive at his conclusion, Dr Dodd tested how 46 self-professed right- and left-leaning Nebraskans react to a series of 33 images. Some were associated with negative feelings: a spider on a man’s face (fear), an open wound with maggots (disgust) and a man being beaten up by a mob (anger). Others—a smiling child, a bowl of fruit or a cute rabbit—were picked to evoke a warm and fuzzy sensation (positive emotions fall less readily into distinct categories).
The level of arousal was measured by tracking changes in how the participants’ skin conducts a tiny current. The nervous system reacts to emotionally salient stimuli by spurring eccrine glands to release moisture. Since more moisture makes skin a better conductor, an uptick in conductivity reflects heightened arousal (a phenomenon polygraphers exploit to help detect whether someone is lying). The results confirmed that nasty pictures aroused Republicans more than pleasant ones did. And, as Dr Dodd expected, the opposite was true for Democrats. In both cases, the more partisan the participant, the more pronounced the respective predilection.
The best part about the piece, apart from seeing the work of my excellent colleagues get more well-deserved recognition? Hands down, it’s the comments on the blog write-up from internet trolls around the world. They range from “These ‘scientists’ are one step away from wanting to round up Republicans and put them in camps” to “How can a person who lives in Nebraska know anything at all?”