Mother Jones Writer Touts Study That Says Conservatism May Have Made Sense During the Pleistocene Epoch

In a hit record from 1974, a girl repeatedly told a suitor, “I don’t like spiders and snakes.” Presumably no one back then thought the song had any political overtones, but forty years later a post on the Mother Jones website has suggested that the girl’s remark meant she probably was a right-winger.

MoJo science writer Chris Mooney reported Tuesday on a recent paper that claims conservatives have, in his account, “a ‘negativity bias,’ meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments” (including huge spiders). He asserted that righties’ extreme wariness leads them to support “a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns.”

From Mooney’s post (bolding added; italics in original):

…[The journal] Behavioral and Brain Sciences employs a rather unique practice called "Open Peer Commentary": An article of major significance is published, a large number of fellow scholars comment on it, and then the original author responds to all of them…[I]n the latest issue of the journal, this process reveals [that a] large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments…One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of "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," as one of their papers put it.)

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. "One possibility," they write, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super helpful in preventing you from getting killed…

…Twenty-six different scholars or groups of scholars then got an opportunity to tee off on the paper, firing off a variety of responses. But as Hibbing and colleagues note in their final reply, out of those responses, "22 or 23 accept the general idea" of a conservative negativity bias, and simply add commentary to aid in the process of "modifying it, expanding on it, specifying where it does and does not work," and so on. Only about three scholars or groups of scholars seem to reject the idea entirely.

That's pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one of the teams of commenters includes New York University social psychologist John Jost, who drew considerable political ire in 2003 when he and his colleagues published a synthesis of existing psychological studies on ideology, suggesting that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity

Back in 2003, Jost and his team were blasted by Ann Coulter, George Will, and National Review for saying this; congressional Republicans began probing into their research grants; and they got lots of hate mail. But what's clear is that today, they've more or less triumphed. They won a field of converts to their view and sparked a wave of new research, including the work of Hibbing and his team…

A few hours later, Mother Jones political blogger Kevin Drum, commenting on Mooney’s item, made it clear he’s not keen on putatively scientific arguments that make conservatives sound dim and nutty:

I wish the researchers who study this stuff could learn to talk about it less condescendingly. After all, this sensitivity to threats might also be useful during, say, World War II. Or on a dark street corner. Or at a city council meeting discussing a zoning variance. If you pretend that it's primarily just a laughable atavism that a few poor primitives among us still hold onto, is it any wonder that conservatives don't think much of your research?

Plus, as Mooney points out in a tweet: "People, take note: To explain conservatives psychologically is basically to explain liberals as well." Yep. The flip side of the threat hypothesis is that liberalism flourishes among people with a naive sense of security.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters