By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor John Hibbing has spent his career striving to uncover the biology of politics.
In 2005, Hibbing identified several transmittable candidate genes that could influence personalities underlying political affiliations. In 2012, he used an eye-tracking device to track behavioral patterns in different subjects, using the data to predict political ideologies. Last month, he helped conduct a study linking anxiety hormones to voter turnout. His latest published work: placing political affiliation into a psychological perspective.
So do we choose our political orientation, or are we born this way? Hibbing believes it's actually a bit of both. In a recent review paper, Hibbing says previous studies have shown the effects of geography, parenting and culture only slightly account for the overwhelming trends in political inheritance.
Or more simply put, Hibbing also said: "Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA."
In my previous article, I criticized one of Hibbing's recent projects linking cortisol production to voter turnout, as a few flaws in the experimental design made the data relatively unconvincing. The sample size was insufficient and less than diverse, and outside studies point to other factors that undermine the reported trends.
In his review paper, Hibbing argues the divide between liberal and conservative individuals is the result of physiologically-caused psychological differences. He proposes that conservative individuals tend to have a greater "negativity bias," fixating more strongly to unpleasant thoughts and images, more frequently viewing them as potentially threatening.
The more conservative you are, the more likely you are to see the glass as half-empty.
"People who are highly responsive to negative sensory input may adopt a prevention focus by diminishing the possibility of negative events occurring or at least by mitigating the consequences of those events," Hibbing writes. "Thus, it is reasonable to hypothesize that individuals who are physiologically and psychologically responsive to negative stimuli will tend to endorse public policies that minimize tangible threats by giving prominence to past, traditional solutions, by limiting human discretion (or endorsing institutions, such as the free market, that do not require generosity, discretion, and altruism), by being protective, by promoting in-groups relative to out-groups, and by embracing strong, unifying policies and authority figures."
On the surface, Hibbing's argument certainly appears logical. It makes sense that political affiliations could be a result of personality that is dually learned and innate. And it makes sense that this personality can be analyzed against a psychological backdrop.
Yet I'm still not entirely convinced. Try telling a member of the Green Party that her "liberal orientation" makes her less sensitive to threats. She will quickly tell you that the threat of large companies polluting the environment is very real.
Try telling a member of the LGBT community that he is not thinking about threats in his everyday life.
Hibbing actually addresses this counterargument, but says that these threats are not as tangible and therefore not as much of a concern for liberally-oriented individuals. Somehow, I just don't quite buy it.
It seems to me that Hibbing is simply too quick to jump from one study and conclude that conservatives are more likely to view the world as threatening and oppressive.
Both the liberal and conservative ideologies face threats - often the threats of each other - on a daily basis. In fact, Hibbing even admits a flaw in his argument, noting that conservatives have a negativity bias, and liberals may or may not have a negativity bias.
I highly recommend Hibbing's article to anyone who is interested in this topic. His review is extremely extensive and undeniably interesting, and he brings up some valid points on the personality dichotomy within our culture. However, I would like to see more research conducted specifically on negativity bias and how it connects directly to the political spectrum.