Preface: This essay slams partisan liberals and partisan conservatives. If you think I’m unfairly criticizing “your” side, it might be because you’re falling into a self-destructive pattern of defending your narrow worldview, which is the whole point of this discussion.
In addition, I would bet that the “conservatives” showing fear are not really conservatives, but Republican party loyalists and authoritarians, and likewise the “liberals” showing a lack of discipline are not true progressives but naive, unthinking Democratic party loyalists. Indeed, some of the bravest people I’ve ever met are libertarians, and some of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met are progressives.
Remember, poll after poll shows that both national parties are deeply unpopular with an electorate looking for something new and different. It is those who love one of the two mainstream parties who are the extremists.
Numerous studies have claimed to show that conservatives tend to be more fearful than liberals.
For example, Wired reported in 2008:
In reflex tests of 46 political partisans, psychologists found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to be shocked by sudden threats.
Accompanying the physiological differences were deep differences on hot-button political issues: military expansion, the Iraq war, gun control, capital punishment, the Patriot act, warrantless searches, foreign aid, abortion rights, gay marriage, premarital sex and pornography.
“People are experiencing the world, experiencing threat, differently,” said University of Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing. “We have very different physiological orientations.”
The study, published today in Science, has not yet been duplicated, but adds a potentially troubling piece to the puzzle of biology, behavior and politics.
Earlier studies have linked reflexive responses to threats — which for testing purposes take the form of loud noises and graphic images — with existing states of heightened anxiety.
Though the Science study’s authors cautioned against an overly broad interpretation of their findings, the results suggest that fear leads to political conservatism.
Study co-author Kevin Smith, also a University of Nebraska political scientist … agreed that “people with stronger responses are more sensitive to potential threats in their environment.”
And the Telegraph reported last December:
Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.
On the otherhand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.
The “exciting” correlation was found by scientists at University College London who scanned the brains of two members of parliament and a number of students.
They found that the size of the two areas of the brain directly related to the political views of the volunteers.
However as they were all adults it was hard to say whether their brains had been born that way or had developed through experience.
Prof Geraint Rees, who led the research, said: “We were very surprised to find that there was an area of the brain that we could predict political attitude.
“It is very surprising because it does suggest there is something about political attitude that is encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that there is something in our brain structure that determines or results in political attitude.”
A Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
Only time will tell whether the above-described studies are accurate or not.
Assuming they are true for the purpose of this essay raises the question: is more fear a good thing or a bad thing?
On the one hand, there are real dangers in the world, and Daddy and Mommy won’t always be there to deal with them. The government cannot fix all of our problems … we’re going to have to deal with most of it for ourselves.
Our fear instinct is there to protect us and to spur us into appropriate action. If we never felt fear, we would get hit by trucks or poisoned by food that’s gone bad.
As the Wired article notes:
“Threatening situations do indeed seem to increase people’s affinity for politically conservative opinions, leaders, and parties,” said New
York University psychologist John Jost.
So there is an argument that conservatives are people who have had to face dangers – perhaps early in life – and so have a more realistic view of the world.
On the other hand, too much fear makes us stupid, and makes us easy prey to those who are trying to manipulate us.
As I’ve repeatedly noted, the government exaggerates the threat of terror for political purposes.
As the Wired article quoted above notes:
Study co-author Kevin Smith, also a University of Nebraska political scientist, demurred at making such a connection. “Historically speaking, politicians have appealed to the ‘be afraid’ response in the electorate in an attempt to mine votes,” he said. “But in terms of going from campaigning to what we did in the laboratory, that’s a large leap.”
Asked whether the findings imply a fearmongering strategy for conservatives, New York University psychologist David Amodio responded, “Yes.
And some people believe that they are actively using this strategy.”
The Bush administration has been accused of exploiting fears, though it’s hardly a new approach.
“The whole aim of practical politics,” wrote journalist gadfly H.L. Mencken,
“is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins.”
Jost condemned such tactics. “From an ethical standpoint, conservative campaigns should not exploit feelings of fear in the general population,” he said.
Are Liberals Novelty-Seekers?
There is some evidence that liberals are more motivated by novelty. For example, the Telegraph article notes:
The results, which will be published next year, back up a study that showed that some people were born with a “Liberal Gene” that makes people more likely to seek out less conventional political views.
The gene, a neurotransmitter in the brain called DRD4, could even be stimulated by the novelty value of radical opinions, claimed the researchers at the University of California
People who are continually driven to seek novelty will make bad decisions, and may be more likely to lose money on “novel” investment gambles, to contract sexually-transmitted diseases, and to face other negative consequences. Conservatives frequently accuse liberals of having no “values”, of being promiscuous, and of having no guiding star of consistency.
If true, the desire to seek novelty might help explain those traits.
Get Smarter, and Be Happier and More Successful
We make better decisions when we aren’t driven to obsession by a desire for novelty or scared out of our wits by our own shadows.
For one thing, we become less susceptible to manipulation. For example, the powers-that-be try to divide us and demonize the “other side” so that we won’t realize how much we all agree on. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this. We can fix our nation if we focus on what we all want.
Moreover, if we reduce the amount that yearnings or fear drive and control us, then we will have more control over our actions. For example, we will make better investing decisions.
As Business Insider notes, polarized thinking is one of the main mistakes investors make:
What’s the first thing that pops in your head when you hear the word “left?” Most people instantly think “right.”
That’s because humans have a tendency to view things as extremes; we see the world in black and white rather than shades of gray. We’re naturally drawn toward one side or another, which can make us bad at compromising.
Psychology Today’s solution? “Be alert to polarized wording, framing, and thinking, especially when processing political arguments and debate.”
And we will feel better if we lessen our polarity of being either a yearning-or-desire driven person. As Buddhist psychology has taught for thousands of years (and as several western psychiatrists have confirmed), the things that make us most unhappy are:
- Yearning for things we want but can’t have
- Trying to avoid things we are afraid of but can’t get away from
- And trying to space out and avoid being present in our lives so as to avoid reality
We will be happy to the extent we:
- Let go of the things we want but can’t have, and instead appreciate what we do have
- Accept the scary things which we can’t avoid
- And are present to the events and people around us
(And see this.)