[iDC] The Politics of Perception

Paul Miller anansi5000 at gmail.com
Fri Sep 19 14:15:34 UTC 2008

an amusing scenario:

Political views 'all in the mind'
By Matt McGrath
Science reporter, BBC World Service

Voters' mind are made up long before they arrive at the ballot box

Scientists studying voters in the US say our political views may be an  
integral part of our physical makeup.
Their research, published in the journal Science, indicates that  
people who are sensitive to fear or threat are likely to support a  
right wing agenda. Those who perceived less danger in a series of  
images and sounds were more inclined to support liberal policies. The  
authors believe their findings may help to explain why voters' minds  
are so hard to change.

In the study, conducted in Nebraska, 46 volunteers were first asked  
about their political views on issues ranging from foreign aid and the  
Iraq war to capital punishment and patriotism. Those with strong  
opinions were invited to take part in the second part of the  
experiment, which involved recording their physiological responses to  
a series of images and sounds. The images included pictures of a  
frightened man with a large spider on his face and an open wound with  
maggots in it. The subjects were also startled with loud noises on  

Conducting experiments

By measuring the electrical conductance of the volunteers' skin and  
their blink responses, the scientists were able to work out the degree  
of fear they were experiencing - how sensitive they were to the images  
and sounds.
"Instead of political opponents thinking the opposite party are being  
wilfully bull-headed, you can say 'well ok, they see the world  
differently than I do'"
John Hibbing.

They found that subjects who were more easily startled tended to have  
political views that would be classified as more right wing, being  
more in favour of capital punishment and higher defence spending, but  
opposed to abortion rights.

The scientists explained that these political positions were  
protective of the volunteers' social groups.

"We focused primarily on things that we call 'protecting the social  
unit'," said John Hibbing from the University of Nebraska. "So the  
idea is we have this unit - maybe it's the US - and we want to protect  
this from outsiders; so we might be opposed to immigration, we might  
advocate patriotism, and we like leaders who are strong and clear who  
are able to protect us from those outsiders. "We might even be opposed  
to pornography or any kind of corrosive element that we see  
threatening the social unit. "On the other hand, you have people who  
are more supportive of pacifism and who advocate gun control - and  
there are lots of areas where people who are less sensitive to threat  
would project those kinds of feelings into the political arena."

Different strokes

The researchers say there is no political relevance to their research  
- but Dr Hibbing feels it may help explain why it is so hard to change  
someone's mind in a political debate. Different people, he said,  
started from a different psychological point. "You have people who are  
experiencing the world, who are experiencing threat, differently.

"It's just that we have these very different physiological  
orientations. We're not sure where they came from, they may be  
genetic, they may be something from childhood; we do know, though,  
that they run deep because it's a reflex, it's not something you can  
change tomorrow, the depth of that may be something of an asset in  
figuring out why people are so stubborn in their political beliefs,"  
he said. "I even have the hope that this might facilitate  
understanding a little bit. Instead of political opponents thinking  
the opposite party are being wilfully bull-headed, you can say 'well  
ok, they see the world differently than I do'. "People haven't just  
thought about things differently, they feel things differently."

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