Looking at the brains of liberals, conservatives

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October 5th, 2010

Your passionately-held political beliefs may stem from the way you physically perceive the world… but don’t tell that to the politically passionate.

Liberals and conservatives experience the world in quite different ways. And that experience may explain and even lead to their political persuasion. That was the finding of a 2008 study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing. The study was the topic of the Oct. 5 Science Café in Omaha – a project of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It was also covered on the comedy news show, The Daily Show. And fake reporter Aasiv Mandvi may have said it best…

“Hibbing’s team thinks they’ve discovered the elusive political gene,” Mandvi said, “giving hope to millions with this debilitating condition.” Mock-interviewing Hibbing, Mandvi said, straight-faced, “So basically you come out of the womb and you’re either for socialized medicine or you’re for rich people?” Hibbing responded with a quick, “No.

Dr. John Hibbing is the author of a study that found major differences in the way liberals and conservatives experience the world

Hibbing goes on to say Mandvi was… over-simplifying. In the study, which was published in the journal Science, Hibbing and his team found conservatives are more likely to experience a strong visceral reaction to shocking images – like people eating worms or emaciated bodies – than their liberal counterparts. Liberals experienced a stronger reaction to more pleasurable images – like sunsets and happy couples.

“Wherever they come from,” Hibbing said, “these political beliefs seem to have become physiologically instantiated, whether its socialized or innate, people are inclined one way or another politically not just because of a few things that they think but rather because of how they experience and react to the world.”

What does it mean? Well, Hibbing said some personality profiles have been done based on the research. They depict conservatives as more conscientious and liberals more open to new experiences. But no matter the depiction, Hibbing said the study doesn’t go over well with people from either side of the aisle.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re pretty unpopular on both sides of the spectrum,” he said. “Liberals don’t like the notion that there may be something fairly deep that’s difficult to change. They like to believe we can improve the human condition with this program or that idea. Conservatives are likely to think this is just some liberal academics who are out to make it sound like conservatives are somehow flawed.”

Hibbing said the study could make people more tolerant, or at least more understanding. “People who disagree with you,” he said, may not just be “bullheaded and unwilling to face the facts.” The facts may just look quite different.

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