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What Are You Afraid Of?

Interesting study in the journal Science on how fear responses correlate to positions on hot-button electoral issues, and more loosely to political party affiliation.

"Why do people have the attitudes they do toward social issues such as welfare, abortion, immigration, gay rights, school prayer, and capital punishment?," the study asks.

The researchers say the answer transcends conventional explanations such as economic circumstances, families, friends, and educational background, and is instead "conditioned by fundamental traits of temperament."

". . .the researchers, headed by Douglas Oxley of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, decided to test the idea that liberal and conservative (or "protective") social beliefs are related to individuals' sensitivity to threat.

The authors first conducted a random telephone survey of Lincoln residents to find some who held strong political opinions. Then 46 selected respondents were invited to come in to the lab and fill in questionnaires to reveal political beliefs and personality traits. Participants were then given two types of tests to measure physiological responses to threat.

First, they were attached to equipment to measure skin conductivity, which rises with emotional stress as the moisture level in skin goes up. Each participant was shown threatening images, such as a bloody face interspersed with innocuous pictures of things such as bunnies, and rise in skin conductance in response to the shocking image was measured. The other measure was the involuntary eye blink that people have in response to something startling, such as a sudden loud noise. The scientists measured the amplitude of blinks via electrodes that detected muscle contractions under people's eyes.

The researchers found that both of these responses correlated significantly with whether a person was liberal or conservative socially. . . Co-author Kevin Smith says the results showed that automatic fear responses are better predictors of protective attitudes than sex or age.

My key takeaway from the study is that the correlation is probably too loose to call definitively either way (nothing is ever this black and white, and people's self-selection for extremely partisan political views probably indicates a bit of psychopathology anyway) but more than anything it makes me want to force researchers like these to undergo some studies of their own -- mental health exams.

TAGS: Innovation
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