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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Stec

Political animals


"Oh, everyone believes In how they think it ought to be Oh, everyone believes And they're not going easily"

“Belief”, John Mayer


Agree to Disagree After a week of lower-back-numbing cubicle work a few years ago, the last thing I wanted to argue about was the state of gentrification in Fishtown. And yet, here we were. A woman who had just moved to Fishtown from Michigan was frustrated with the apparently mendacious gentrification that was displacing locals from their homes. As someone tired of people unapologetically referring to my home as “Filthadelphia”… I saw things differently. Finally, new homes, infrastructure and economic growth for a city that lost nearly 25% of its population from 1960 to 2000. It was shaping into a liberal-leaning vs. conservative-leaning argument. But I quickly realized the ROI of winning the argument was quite low. Perhaps even negative, accounting for TSNS (Time Spent Not Socializing). So we agreed to disagree in a civil manner. Prost. Not all political arguments end so peacefully, of course. Sometimes they resemble those parodied by SNL's "girl you wish you hadn't started a conversation with at a party".

Sometimes, you may wonder if the other "side" of the left-right continuum is simply wired differently. How can their beliefs be so different, wrong or crazy? This isn’t an article absolutely flogging the we’re-so-polarized-these-days dead horse. I do, however, want to cover why liberals and conservatives are actually wired a bit differently. Political attitudes can be so doggone stubbornly held because research now shows they aren’t just preferences actively decided in adulthood. As psychology and neuroscience show us, they are sourced from somewhere much deeper. A group of political scientists, all much more qualified than me, put it like this:

“[H]umans are, at heart, political animals. Political attitudes are not simply an afterthought and while largely measured in adulthood, the foundation elements exist as part of our core disposition and appear to be just as important to shaping our behavior as our personalities.” (1)

Political Animals What are the foundation elements to how liberals and conservatives differ? Let’s take the below two examples. They reveal how biological and psychological forces, often influenced by genetics or early childhood, impact political attitudes. I stole these two examples from Behave, written by the neuroendrocrinologist Robert Sapolskly at Stanford, who is also much more qualified than me. I want to caveat these findings by emphasizing they say things about group differences and can't necessarily be used to predict an individual person's leanings... 1) Biological: In studies in which people are shown various disgusting images, conservatives are consistently disgusted more easily than liberals. Disgust is also a key emotion often activated (if only briefly) when individuals are shown images of out-group people (e.g. the homeless). Linking these two pieces together, researchers interpret these findings to explain why liberals may be, for example, more welcoming of immigrants bringing new ideas and talents, while conservatives, the stereotypical neat freaks with their lower disgust thresholds, see unwashed masses carrying new diseases. (Depending on which side of history you analyze, both perspectives have been understandable. America net benefitted from new people entering their land; Native Americans, earlier, did not). Research shows that both liberals and conservatives become more socially conservative when you herd them into a room that smells awful. In short, paraphrasing Paul Rozin of Penn, disgust plays a role in how people determine who is a safe "Us" vs. an unfamiliar "Them". 2) Psychological: Paraphrasing Sapolsky, liberals and conservatives also differ emotionally. Liberals tend to be made less anxious by ambiguity, prefer novelty, are less comforted by structure and hierarchy, and less readily perceive circumstances as threatening. In this way, they tend to be more open to change and breaks from tradition, for better or worse. These effects are deeply ingrained in personality. As he writes further, “a four-year-old’s openness to a new toy predicts how open she’ll be as an adult to, say, the United States forging new relations with Iran or Cuba.” (2) Being open is often positive, but it’s context dependent. There is another saying: a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. While change and shake-ups and new ideas are often great… sometimes, they aren’t. We can agree that eugenics, a progressive idea from the 20th century, was one such bad idea. Conservatives value protecting the people and what has worked (often for a long time) in the past, because the future can be scary, especially to those who are more anxious about its inevitable uncertainties. I’m certainly simplifying a bit here, but these differences in political attitudes can almost be considered in the same light as characteristics such as height, extraversion and IQ. And to what extent is the natural variation in political attitudes between humans genetic? Twin studies suggest that political attitudes are ~40% heritable. (3) Checks and Balances These studies cast doubt into the idea that we entirely choose, as adults, whether we lean blue, red or somewhere in the middle. In truth, our attitudes are reflections of our unique (and relatively stable) cognitive and affective style. Natural variations in these lead to natural variations in political beliefs; a world completely devoid of conservatives or liberals is likely impossible. Tomorrow, mothers will give birth to new babies who are sensitive to dirty smells (or to long-haired hippie babies who don’t mind them). In theory, this natural variation in what people value, politically or otherwise, leads to a system of checks and balances. In practice, there is often chaos, and I won’t pretend we can always hold hands and sing “Tiny Dancer” together. I do think there is value in knowing the surprising degree to which political attitudes are tied to who we are. Starting a new diet is one thing, but how about completely changing political perspectives... or someone else’s? Sometimes, there is only acceptance.



1) "Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies", Brad Verhulst, et al.

2) Behave, Robert Sapolsky (p. 452)

3) "On the genetic basis of political orientation", Christopher T Dawes, Aaron C Weinschenk

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