Saturday, March 17, 2012

Angry (or Fearful) White Men

I am always interested in why we humans perceive and respond to the world the way we do. How is it that our brains are comfortable with attaching significance to one set of facts, yet conversely be dismissive (or even ignorant) of contradictory information?

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."[1]

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 (, Feb. 28, 2012


Rain Trueax said...

Some people are saying Sarah Palin caused this by how she so eagerly used fear-based and threatening rhetoric, but I think she played to the crowd. It is quite possible that she became more of what she is today because of all the cheers and encouragement she got from those crowds. Of course, it had to be in her temperament and certainly she was one who wanted only simplistic, black and white answers. With the cheers, she saw her power and it almost controlled her more than she controlled it. It's like so many of the hate-mongering pundits, if they stopped saying what they do, they'd lose their audience.

To use cool logic, to discuss issues, temperament, ways of thinking, such as you do with this blog, is what a person would like to see more of on the left and the right, but we don't live in a time that seems to encourage it. I worry that it'll get worse before it gets better. Hysteria must have its own reward of some sort and for those who don't get off on hysteria, it's a tough time-- a real tough time.

Getting people to stick to issues and discuss real possible solutions is probably going to be in short supply for the rest of the year. I only hope we get a Republican candidate who wants to present actual solutions and not go for a constant barrage of hate and fear talk. With all the anger already stirred up, this could be really ugly.

Paul said...

Robert, I believe in God , because I think God is truth - not because of the fear of hell. Jesus was all about love and mercy. As for Big Government, it exists and is, in fact, getting bigger despite efforts to distort figures so that it appears to not be the case. Check out a recent post on my blog on that monolith called the TSA.

Antares Cryptos said...

Fear is a powerful motivator.

There are interesting but flawed studies on the neuroscience of politics.

Here's one of them:

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Of course Palin didn't invent the jingoism that has become shorthand for thinking through complex issues. And I have to admit to myself that there are far too many issues facing human existence for me to be adequately informed on them all. I have no opinion about the troubles in the Middle East, for example, I just don't have the time nor inclination to delve into the issues.

But this is why our form of Democracy is actually called a Representative Republic; we elect people to supposedly sort all this out and make those decisions for us. These representatives fail us, though, when they present these issues in the form of meaningless statements and expect this to resonate as rational discourse.

Paul [sigh] Well thanks for your comments substantiating the premise I make in my post. "God is truth" I know such statements make believers feel all warm and fuzzy, as if this meaningless statement explains anything. "Jesas was all about love and mercy". Sure if you cherry-pick his warm and fuzzy statements and ignore the really nasty things he also says.

I don't even remotely believe in god. So tell me, in your opinion, am I going to heaven when I die? To Hell? Yes or No?

And again, what does "Big Government" mean; number of employees, government spending, rules eroding our civil liberties, spiraling increases in privately provided medical costs paid by government medical programs, etc? The size of the population is INCREASING, the demand on government services is INCREASING, but we expect the size of government to decrease? Your choice of the TSA again cherry-picks the issue - I totally agree that the TSA is inefficient and would prefer to see them use scientific methods like Operations Research, for example. What is happening with the TSA does not imply that all government in every sector is bad.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Fantastic link, thank you!

Indeed there is good science and bad science; and I have written at length about cognitive biases even among the practitioners of science. As with all science, the prevalence of conclusions regarding any set of theories will either tilt toward general acceptance of the postulate or not. These conclusions are, at best, attempts to focus in on the mechanisms which appear to explain the broader implications of why groups think in way that they do.

Jerry said...

I have been thinking, as of late, that we are incapable of thinking outside our own little boxes. It is a sad commentary that Newt seems to be the only one to attempt to address larger issues (at least lately) on the Republican side...and that is pretty scary.

I am hesitant to generalize too much and paint conservatives with such a broad brush. But I have to admit that the political landscape of the last year seems to confirm your conclusion.

Galt-in-Da-Box said...

Your blog is VERY well-named.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jerry One should be mindful of making generalizations, though there seems to be a significant indication that a Conservative from my father's generation, like Barry Goldwater or eve Reagan, would be considered too moderate in today's political climate.

GaltBox I find it gratifying when someone considers my blog even worthy of leaving a comment.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if there is a biological/evolutionary component behind the difference between liberal and conservative minds.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter Interesting question. I know that neuroscientists do find an evolutionary basis for our identifying with and forming into groups

Paul said...

Robert only you can say whether you go to hell or heaven. As an atheist, you probably don'e believe in them do you? As for Jesus, a lot of humanity has and still does believe in his message, but I suppose in the eyes of cool, atheist logic we believers are foolish.

As for big Government it exists and is growing. No matter how large it becomes it will never take care of every citizen's needs which is what Obama wants. TSA is an example of a government program grown to excess. We need government, but not a monolith that never stops getting larger. There is a lot of government waste and we both know it. Eliminate it and it will not only save the tax payers money but run efficiently.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul "...only you can say whether you go to hell or heaven." Typical religious evasive double-speak. You can't answer the question, however I can: I find the concept of heaven juvenile and actually kind of creepy. I find the concept of hell at odds with what is purported to be a loving and just god deserving of worship. I find the stories compiled and edited and changed in the bible drawn from many many other sources over time and history to be just that, stories; no more believable than Dianetics or the Book of Mormon and other stories that continue to be made up.

I am very comfortable being an Atheist not needing a holy book to coerce or reward me into treating people ethically, the way I would want to be treated.

On Big Government, please state your evidence where Obama "wants to take care of every citizen's needs". I'm having a difficult time finding anything like that attributed to Obama.

I agree with you that government is big and is growing. I also agree that the population is growing and the demands upon government as well (quite a bit due to the excesses of the private sector making self-sufficiency more difficult for the non-rich.) I agree that eliminating waste in government is a laudable goal; I agree that the TSA could work "smarter". But as someone who studies people's perceptions and their reactions to them, I believe that people such as you overestimate the inefficiency and underestimate the benefits. I stand behind my article that demonstrates that this skewing of perception is primarily driven by fear.

Paul said...

Robert: I am truely amazed by your logic and erudition .Worldly wisdom is a dead end in the end. Been there and done it. In my radical SDS in the 1960a period I felt as you do - thank the good Lord I came to my senses.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul You said: "Worldly wisdom is a dead end in the end." Again, like this statement is supposed to mean something??!! Explain, please! Do you mean like Santorum warns about going to college; knowledge will take you away from false (comforting) beliefs?

Unlike you, I never did go through any "radical SDS" period, never was a "hippie", never really joined in with any group who I allowed to do my thinking for me. So it's no longer the SDS, but you are apparently still a "follower".

But I am gratified that you are amazed by my logic and erudition. For one thing such has allowed me as a child to leave the false comfort of my teddy bear and not have to replace it with a mythical spook in the sky as an adult. Compliment accepted.

BBC said...

Corvallis Oregon? Filled up my fuel tank there on a recent road trip. I was beginning to think I had missed I-5, I didn't know it was 15 miles east of town as I came out of Newport.

Paul said...

Robert : You follow the wrong path with admirable gusto. I was in the SDS, but I never was a hippie I confess. You can have your logic. I prefer Seneca and the best advice I ever got in my life was when I was a boy in South Carolina. An old Black man told me, "Boy when it hot find you some shade." There was great logic in his advice. :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul I know, I've been hearing that I am on the wrong path since my college roomate went nuts for the Campus Crusaide for Christ. Even today regularly white-shirted teen-age "elders" from the LDS church come to my door fresh from training to tell me the same.

Fortunately throughout my life I have always gone one step further when I've been presented with simplicities like "Jesus died for your sins". Rather than blindly accepting this meaningless statement like it somehow explains something, I have challenged people to explain what it really means. In response, I get the gamut from blank stares to a litany of mindless justifications.

Ok, so apparently simple banal cliches are more than adequate for you instead of evidence, facts or rational discussion. That's not enough for me. But I understand that for most people belief takes far less effort to acquire than knowledge.

Since you still are unable to offer any convincing argument for your position I'll have to drop down to your level --

"You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe." - Carl Sagan

But since you have a preference for the ancient philosophers: "You believe easily that which you hope for earnestly." - Terence

If you must rely on simplistic cliches instead of well thought out rational, factual discourse, it is a waste of my time to continue on this thread.

Tom said...

Please cite the "multitude" of studies you are pointing too and define multitude.

billy pilgrim said...

i never considered "moderate" to be a dirty word or something to run away from but it seems being called a moderate is worse than being called an embezzler or axe murderer to the current crop of republican hopefuls.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy If you mean "moderate" in the same context as I do (someone who can step back and take an objective look and weigh the pros and cons of a position with a minimum of bias and within a broader scope of consideration), I have a fair amount of respect for moderates on both sides of the asile. John Huntsman, Utah Republican, for example; I may not vote for the guy but I was willing to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately he was squeezed out early in the Republican primaries.

I also think the flag-waving, foul-mouth, narrow-minded, easily-manipulated idealogs, (like the Tea Party) have garnered the spotlight because they are Media fodder. But they don't represent a majority of the populace... at least I HOPE that is the case. If I'm wrong we might as well pull the plug on this great experiment in democracy now.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Tom I'm assuming you mean you would like me to point "to", not "too", the studies...

David M. Amodio et al, “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism,” Nature Neuroscience, September 9, 2007. Finding: Liberals perform better on a conflict-monitoring task and show more anterior cingulate cortex activity in the test.

Luciana Carrago et al, “The Automatic Conservative: Ideology-Based Attentional Asymmetries in the Processing of Valenced Information,” PLoS One, Vol. 6, No. 11, November 9, 2011. Finding: Conservatives more than liberals are automatically attracted to negative stimuli.

Kanai et al, “Political Orientations are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults,” Current Biology, 21, 1-4, April 26, 2011. Findings: Conservatives have larger right amygdala, liberals have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex.

Douglas R. Oxley et al, “Political Attitudes Vary With Physiological Traits,” Science, September 19, 2008, Vol. 321, No. 5896, pp. 1667-1670. Findings: conservatives have stronger physiological reactions to loud noises and threatening images.

Nicholas O. Rule and Nalini Ambady, “Democrats and Republicans Can Be Differentiated By their Faces,” PLoS One, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 18, 2010. Finding: speaks for itself.

Aaron Sell et al, “Formidability and the logic of human anger,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 1, 2009, Vol. 106, no. 35, 15073-15078. Finding: stronger men (as measured by bicep size, among other measures) more likely to support death penalty, Iraq war, use of force in international conflicts.

Shook, NJ and Fazio, RH, “Political ideology, exploration of novel stimuli, and attitude formation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2009, vol. 45, p. 995-998. Finding: Liberals show more exploratory behavior in a learning video game; conservatives in contrast employ an “avoidant” strategy.

Hope these will do for now, I can cite additional studies if this is not enough reading for you...

... and to your other part of your question...

[muhl-ti-tood, -tyood]
1. a great number; host: a multitude of friends.
2. a great number of people gathered together; crowd; throng.
3. the state or character of being many; numerousness.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Fear and hate mongering are, to me, the last resort of the desperate. Intellectual is not a dirty word and extending one's hand to help another is not socialism, though I don't have a problem with that word either.

I appreciated your comment at the Carl Sagan quote I recently posted. When we are so mired in the trivial and the untrue, how will we ever regain our footing, manage, as a country, to be rowing in the same direction and not be even more at odds with one another than with other nations, whose business we confuse with ours.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Your metaphor of us all "rowing in the same direction" is quite apt. We tend view our relationships with each other in terms of groups or affiliations or loyalties. But as Sagan pointed out, we are all in the same "boat" on this little planet. If we are at odds with each other, we are ultimately at odds with ourselves.

Paul said...

Robert here is the definition of a skeptic.

A person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.

From my reading of your past articles I doubt that you are a skeptic. You are very dogmatic in the positions that you take. Do you question only religion? How about science and atheism ? Do you question your own views ? A true skeptic does.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul Accepting the definition you offer, the key word in that sentence is "purporting" to be factual.

Skeptics by nature cannot be dogmatic; simply show us the evidence in the form of falsifiable proof of telekinesis, astrology, ghosts, clairvoyance, dowsing... long list... including the "purported" existence of god(s), and we will gladly admit we were wrong.

Skeptic Michael Shermer likes to say that Skeptics have an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out. He explains that Skeptics are from Missouri, the "show me" state.

What we find is that many people who are not skeptics, perhaps similar to you, simply have a much lower standard of evidence. For skeptics, really really really really strong feelings that something is true does not make it true.

I have accepted Atheism because a lifetime of researching these questions has failed to show me ANY credible substantiation for the existence of god(s). In fact I've found just the opposite - research showing me evidence, for example, of the very human origins of all the holy books, the psychological reasons why people desire to believe, and all kinds of information from physics to natural history in which the evidence is in conflict with any sort of supernatural origin. I have compiled my own short brochure which I attempt to briefly outline my basis for rejecting religion and belief in god(s). I hand this out to the missionaries who come to my door... often I know more about their religion than they do!

Science itself is a skeptical process. Nobody concludes something is true based on one study or experiment finding. In fact the beauty of science is that people eagerly go after someone else's findings in order to challenge it's validity. That process either refutes the finding or ends up becoming part of the body of evidence supporting the hypothesis. Being a scientist IS being a skeptic. And it is true, as I have blogged about before, scientists are not immune to self-delusion, mistakes, or cognitive biases and wishful thinking.

So yes, I question my views all the time. I await proof that my conclusions are otherwise... and If convincing, I will change my views.

Tommykey said...

What bothers me about what is happening with the Republican party is that they are devoting their efforts and rhetoric to attacking things that are not actual problems.

Same-sex marriage is not a problem. Abortion and contraception are not problems.

I'm reminded of the speech Michael Douglas's character gives at the end of The American President where he declares "We have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them."

The problem we have is that too many on the right are serious about trying to solve things that aren't problems and not being serious about actual problems.

Little more than a decade ago I still considered myself to be a reliable Republican or conservative voter, but I honestly can't relate to these people anymore.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Tommykey I was in the same boat, I was a Reagan Republican back in my banking days. The party left me behind some time ago, and the Conservative statesmen who I admired have all retired or left office.

Jayne said...

I've never voted for a "party," not registered as either, and I don't have the patience for any of the republicans these days. We need not worry about the republicans--they all seem so completely out of touch with reality. Obama will win by default. Not that that will be a bad thing. ;)

And ditto everything Marylinn said.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne I tried to register as an independent but my registration came back Democrat. *shrugs*. I fear complacency among the Progressives; being lulled into a false sense of security, fearing people will stay home thinking Obama is a shoe-in. Then there is all Conservative assaults on voting rights which are designed to disaffect the poor, and generally Democratic, voter. We cannot let down out guard.