By Chris Mooney, a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the just-released The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality and the New York Times-bestselling The Republican War on Science. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund, and is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.
Voting image via Shutterstock
One of the first questions that usually comes up when people ask me about my book The Republican Brain is: “How do you explain my Uncle Elmer, who grew up a hard core Democrat and was very active in the union, but now has a bumper sticker that reads ‘Don’t Tread on Me’?”
Okay: I’m making this question up, but it’s pretty close to reality. People constantly want to know how to explain political conversions—cases in which individuals have changed political outlooks, sometimes very dramatically, from left to right or right to left.
When I get the standard political conversion question, the one I ask in return may come as a surprise: “Are you talking about permanent political conversions, or temporary ones?”
You see, Uncle Elmer is less interesting to me—and in some ways, less interesting to the emerging science of political ideology—than the committed Democrat who became strongly supportive of George W. Bush right after 9/11, but switched back to hating him a few months later. What caused that to happen? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with thinking carefully about the issues.
Indeed, the growing science of politics has uncovered a variety of interventions that can shift liberal people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Here is a list of five things that can make a liberal change his or her stripes:
Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load”—in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch—produces a conservative political shift.
In one study, for instance, liberal and conservative subjects were asked whether government health care should be extended to a hypothetical group of AIDS victims who were responsible for their own fates (they’d contracted the disease while knowing the risks, and having unprotected sex anyway). Liberals who were not under load—not distracted—wanted to help such people, despite the fact that they were personally responsible for their plight. But liberals under load were much more like conservatives, appearing to reason that this group of AIDS victims had gotten what they deserved. (Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.)
Drunkenness. Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike.
The drinkers still knew whether they were liberal or conservative, of course. But when asked how much they agreed with a variety of statements of political principles—like, “Production and trade should be free of government interference”—higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.
Time Pressure. In another study reported in the same paper, participants were asked how much they endorsed a variety of politically tinged words, like “authority” and “civil rights.” In one study condition, they had to see the term and respond to it in about 1.5 seconds; in the other condition, they had 4 seconds to do so. This made a political difference: Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.
Cleanliness/Purity. In another fascinating study, subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift. In this case, political conservatism was being tied not to distraction, but rather, to disgust sensitivity—an emotional response to preserve bodily purity.
Fear. After 9/11, public support for President George W. Bush also immediately swelled. In fact, a study showed that Bush’s approval ratings increased whenever terror alert levels were issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “liberal hawks” who wanted to attack Iraq was much remarked upon. Why is that?
The answer seems to involve the amygdala, a region of the emotional brain that conditions our life-preserving responses to danger. Its activity seems to have political implications: When we’re deeply afraid, tough and decisive leaders are more appealing to us. So are militaristic and absolute responses, like going to war and the death penalty; things like civil liberties, meanwhile, matter less to us.
It is unlikely that all of the phenomena discussed above involve the same cognitive mechanism. For instance, disgust sensitivity is probably operating through a different part of the brain than fear sensitivity. Still, priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.
What all of this suggests is a pretty stunning conclusion: Maybe we’ve been thinking about political ideology in very much the wrong way. It seems to be at least partly rooted in things deeper and more primal than the policy issues of the day, and how we individually reason that we ought to handle them.
Moreover, it is striking that the research literature does not, at least at present, contain such a plethora of ways to bring about a temporary liberal shift—to make conservatives move left. Instead, what these cases seem to reveal are some inherent conservative political advantages, especially at times of deep fear, uncertainty, and stress. (And we’ve seen some of those recently.)
Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” Perhaps it’s about time that we pay more attention to what the word “nature” here really means.