An intriguing note from the world of science: People may hold conservative political views because they're hard-wired to be more fearful than liberals, according to a team of eight researchers.
The researchers, whose findings were published this week in the journal Science, took 46 people and classified them as liberal or conservative based on their stands on gun control, the Iraq war, defense spending, capital punishment, immigration and other hot-button issues.
According to the Los Angeles Times, they "found to their surprise that opinions on such contentious subjects ... are strongly associated with physiological traits that are probably present at birth. The key is the differing levels of fear that people naturally feel."
In one experiment, subjects were shown disturbing images such as a bloody face, maggots in a wound and a spider on a person's face while a device measured the electrical conductance of their skin, a physiological reaction that indicates fear. In another test, eye blink rates - another indicator of fear - were measured as subjects were exposed to sudden blasts of noise.
"People with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful than staunch liberals after the effects of gender, age, income and education were factored out," the Times reported.
In the abstract of their findings, the researchers concluded that "the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats."
James H. Fowler, a political science professor at UC San Diego who was not involved in the research, told the Times that "the study added to the growing research suggesting that over millions of years, humans have developed two cognitive styles - conservative and liberal. Cautious conservatives prevented societies from taking undue risks, while more flexible liberals fostered cooperation. 'For the species to survive, you need both,' he said."
Predictably, the on-line comments on the Times story were hot and heavy.
"The psychological community has gone communist and is working on subverting this entire country, busily advocating abnormality and discrediting normal behavior. My God these people are sick! Why don't they use their time abusing themselves instead of the American public?" said one conservative.
"It makes sense - the only reason to carry a gun is fear, unless you enjoy killing small defenseless creatures for 'sport,'" said a liberal. "People who are strong and confident feel no need to carry a weapon, because they feel no fear. Ditto, as to fear of 'others' - people who look or sound different - and therefore fear of immigrants. Further studies will probably reveal a failure to correlate information, think critically, or to have compassion for others, and to completely disregard the welfare of future generations and the health of the planet. Just look around you, and listen!"
Personally, The Eye thinks the study sample was way too small to draw any sweeping conclusions. But the idea does make sense on an intuitive level: Conservatives, by definition, want to protect the status quo, and an innate fear of change could account for that.
What do you think, Wandering Eye readers? Let 'er rip.