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Fraidy-cat conservatives and bold liberals?

Posted Sep 26 2008 5:16pm

Continuing our tribute to the psychology of political attitudes, which we started with a discussion of the “happiness gap” between conservatives and liberals, is today’s entry–an article appearing in the prestigious journal Science that claims that conservatives are “three times more fearful” than liberals [1].

Now I know as psychologists that we have to be eternally vigilant about rejecting results out of hand on the basis of “common sense,” but the overt silliness of this conclusion jumps out immediately.  Officers of the US military are overwhelmingly conservative, but I can’t imagine anyone describing them as “fearful.”

Arnold--A Frightened Conservative?

Does Arnold look scared?

Part of the problem can be traced to the authors’ interpretations of their results. They claim (and I have some difficulty picturing Science reviewers allowing this to go forward) that the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) is a measure of fear.  It is my understanding that a safer interpretation is that the GSR measures “arousal.” It is very difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between specific states of arousal using the GSR, including fear, anger, surprise, and sexual arousal, which all produce very similar responses. The other measure used was eyeblink rate, which like the GSR, can change due to many factors, including anger.

I think what we can take out of this experiment is that in this very small, non-representative sample (46 adults from Lincoln, Nebraska) political attitudes may have some connection with the types of reactivity to environmental stimuli that form the basis of personality. But I don’t recommend that the authors suggest to our own California Governator that conservatives are sissies.

1.  Douglas R. Oxley, Kevin B. Smith, John R. Alford, Matthew V. Hibbing, Jennifer L. Miller, Mario Scalora, Peter K. Hatemi, and John R. Hibbing (19 September 2008) Science321 (5896), 1667. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627]

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