No where do these perceptual differences appear so pronounced (or have such effect directly on our lives) than in the political arena. Here we have candidate Rick Santorum stating with absolute certainty that Global Climate Change is a “hoax” or that a college education essentially amounts to nothing more than Liberal indoctrination. The latter a remarkably absurd statement coming from a religious adherent … religion quite literally wrote the Book on indoctrination!
Liberals certainly are not immune to thinking errors or political gaffs, but why do we associate the prevalence of apparent rational-less ideology so strongly with Conservatives? It sometimes seems that Conservatives are almost living in their own separate reality.
Recent research, it turns out, is revealing that this may indeed be the case. A multitude of psychological studies reveal that Conservatives tends to hold more of a “defensively based” ideology; or more to the point, Conservatives view political issues on an emotional level within a context of threat.
I recently read a news article suggesting that the GOP party establishment is attempting to encourage their candidates to shift the campaign focus less on threatening and fear-inducing commentary and instead more toward what the party visions as their platform for the future. Indeed, the 20-some odd public debates seem to be all about demonizing Obama and each other rather than laying a foundation for sound governance. The GOP's menacing portrayals regarding social issues such as gay marriage, access to contraceptives and religion in politics, appear to be running headlong into a wall not shared by most Americans... even among many other Conservative voters.
The data in these studies show that Conservatives tend to have strong adverse reactions when presented with negative images. "The aversive in life is more physiologically and cognitively tangible to some people and they tend to gravitate to the political right."
Liberals, on the other hand, appeal more to an open, exploratory philosophy; trying things out and seeking multiple and contradictory information in comparison. Liberals feel less visceral responses to stimuli because they question whether it is true or if there may be another different or more complex explanation. This philosophic approach has the effect of dispelling fear by considering other possible information.
I notice this fear-based response to topical issues is common among strong religious adherents as well. Evangelicals, who tend to view issues in stark black-and-white terms generally tend to also be Conservative in their thinking. For these folks, belief in god is based on fear of reprisal (hell) for not following the rules, fear of death, even fear of being ostracised by one's peers, all of which plays into acceptance of dogma, or comfortable rationalism, to assuage the threatening consequences.
Back on the political spectrum, this is probably why unsubstantiated, not clearly defined and scary adages such as “redistribution of the wealth”, “Socialism”, “entitlement society”, and “Big Government” to name but a few, seem to resonate as somehow meaningful to Conservative minds.
The down side of acknowledging this theory, regarding the psychology of fear and belief, has the discouraging implication that it may be difficult or impossible break through to minds which appear to be "hard wired" to view the world through the context of fear or threat.
To these folks, as Stephen Colbert has suggested: "The truth has a Liberal bias".
1. "The Left and the Right: Physiology, Brain Structure and Function, and Attentional Differences", Chris Mooney, The Intersection (http://scienceprogressaction.org), Feb. 28, 2012