Researchers Who Study Political Temperament Need to Watch the Condescension


Chris Mooney writes today about one of his favorite subjects: the hypothesis that underlying personality traits tend to make people either politically liberal or politically conservative. The latest news is that, apparently, virtually everyone who studies this kind of thing now agrees that it’s true:

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments….The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super helpful in preventing you from getting killed.

Well, yes, the Pleistocene. I suppose it would have been useful then. But I wish the researchers who study this stuff could learn to talk about it less condescendingly. After all, this sensitivity to threats might also be useful during, say, World War II. Or on a dark street corner. Or at a city council meeting discussing a zoning variance. If you pretend that it’s primarily just a laughable atavism that a few poor primitives among us still hold onto, is it any wonder that conservatives don’t think much of your research?

Plus, as Mooney points out in a tweet: “People, take note: To explain conservatives psychologically is basically to explain liberals as well.” Yep. The flip side of the threat hypothesis is that liberalism flourishes among people with a naive sense of security.

But this is nothing new. As the old saying goes, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. Liberals and conservatives argue endlessly about just how much security is necessary against outsiders: against the Soviets during the Cold War, against terrorists after 9/11, to protect ourselves against street thugs, etc. The idea that different sensitivities to threat are fundamental to liberalism and conservatism strikes me as something I barely even need research to believe in.