Liberal disgust over conservative disgust -- cheerfully discussed by disgusted libertarian!

I've read that conservative is the new gay, but might there actually be a "conservative gene"? What if conservatives are "born that way" as activists maintain gays are? Wouldn't that make conservatives the members of a legitimate identity group worthy of the full range of legal protections?

Lest anyone laugh at the absurdity, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof takes the deterministic view quite seriously, and he is citing studies which purport to document things like the conservative blink rate. No really:

Researchers have found, for example, that some humans are particularly alert to threats, particularly primed to feel vulnerable and perceive danger. Those people are more likely to be conservatives.

One experiment used electrodes to measure the startle blink reflex, the way we flinch and blink when startled by a possible danger. A flash of noise was unexpectedly broadcast into the research subjects' earphones, and the response was measured.

The researchers, led by Kevin B. Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that those who had a stronger blink reflex at the noise were more likely to take such conservative positions as favoring gun rights, supporting warrantless searches, and opposing foreign aid.

That makes intuitive sense: If you are more acutely sensitive to risks and more fearful of attack, you also may be more aggressive in arming yourself and more wary of foreigners.

Hey I can remember when they tried to show that gays have a different blink rate than straights. (The pre-pulse inhibition rate, to be exact.) I wonder whether they've compared the PPIs of liberals and conservatives. (Never mind libertarians; they don't exist.)

Tom Maguire has a lot of fun deconstructing the latest of advances from "science":

Let's see - conservatives are more alert to danger and distrustful of foreigners. So it was conservatives that opposed NAFTA and every free trade agreement since then, fearful as they were of job losses and foreign competition.

And it is conservatives, fearful of the possibility of hurtful speech leading to violent action, that have advocated for speech codes on our nation's campuses.

It was fearful conservative educators who suspended a first grader for bringing a "spork" to school.

And (you guessed it!) it is conservatives, ever alert to threats and fearful of the possibility of global climate change caused by those polluting Chinese, that have led the charge for a global agreement on carbon emissions.

Ain't neuroscience grand?

It never ceases to amaze me the way liberals will claim that conservatives are "authoritarian" in nature when the latter are overwhelmingly against government telling people what to do. Even religious conservatives, much as I disagree with them, tend to believe in divine authority, perhaps biblical authority, but they generally admit that it's beyond the control of man. Liberalism once meant belief in freedom, but it has degenerated into hopeless buttinskyism, and there is no political class more enamored with the idea of telling people what to do. Often at gunpoint. The idea that conservatives are more "authoritarian" is one of the big lies of politics.

The study that Kristof sites is also criticized here for a methodology so thoroughly flawed that the author calls it a "textbook example":

In sum, the authors support their conclusions through multiple acts of creative and tendentious redescription: They describe all of the relevant physiological and ideological variables as indicating a perception of threat, and then show that they are correlated. This is a textbook example of the fallacy of "misuse of hypothesis" or "persuasive definition": The authors define and characterize phenomena in a manner favorable to their hypothesis, but with little justification other than to support their hypothesis.
Attempting to chart one's political views by measuring levels of disgust over things like spiders crawling on faces, rotten meat, dead bodies is silly, because these matters ultimately involve taste, and I can't help notice that what is entirely omitted in the definitions of conservatism are economic matters. (I often suspect that the culture war is intended to keep us bickering over penises in the hope we won't notice the country is going bankrupt, but that's another rant.)

Anyway, I should point out that in the interest of fairness I took the Disgust Scale test which is linked in the paper Kristof cites. ("The Ick Factor: Disgust Sensitivity as a Predictor of Political Attitudes.")

Considering the admitted bias of the test's author (and the fact that registration is required), I suspect that most of the 45,000 or so people who have taken the test would be politically to the left of me.

Even so, my disgust scores are lower than the average (and my "animal reminder" levels are way lower):


The terms are explained here:

1) Core disgust: the "core" of the emotion, which is about defending the mouth from contamination by dirty or inappropriate things like body excretions, certain animals like rats and cockroaches, and certain foods, like ice cream with ketchup.

2) Animal-reminder disgust: things involving death, corpses, and violations of the external boundaries of the body, such as amputations. These things remind us that we, like animals, are mortal.

3) Contamination disgust: this kind of disgust is a defense of the whole body, not just the mouth, from contact with dirty or sleazy people.

Hmm... Perhaps I should feel contaminated just by having participated in the study. I feel all icky. Maybe I should take a bath.

I'll try not to throw my inner child out with the bathwater.

posted by Eric on 02.15.10 at 06:45 PM


er, #2 daughter is following in her great-granddad's footsteps and is in a mortuary science program (my grandpa was first a mortician then a memorial counselor with Forest Lawn for over 40 years).

Both of 'em total conservatives.

so much for "disgust" with dead bodies signals "conservative".

#1 daughter is an ICU RN. You'll find few as hard-nosed common sense, conservative as her.

Darleen   ·  February 15, 2010 7:12 PM

Good career choices, Darleen. Either one would have been better for me than law.

And they also contribute more to society!

Eric Scheie   ·  February 15, 2010 7:59 PM

I took that test last May and scored much lower than you on the last item, but higher on the "core" disgust. Our "animal reminder" scores are similar.

And that means? Nothing important as far as I can tell.

Donna B.   ·  February 16, 2010 12:13 AM

Michael Pollan wrote that the sense of disgust was an evolutionary survival mechanism to keep our ancestors (whatever mammal it started with) from eating things that would make it sick or kill it.

What they are saying is in the coming global warming apocalypse, the liberals will eat all the spoiled meat and produce that is left out when the power is out for months. Thus they will sicken and die, and only conservatives will be left.

The sad part is the conservatives left will refuse to admit Man brought this doom upon himself by not lowering his carbon footprint; instead making up stories that the melting glaciers were some sort of "flood sent by God" to make us pay for our sins. And then as we slowly relearned technology the entire cycle would repeat again, dooming us for eternity to relive our folly.

plutosdad   ·  February 16, 2010 1:10 AM

Eric -

This whole thing can be boiled down to one simple truth:

Anything a liberal accuses someone of doing or being is simply projection of what they themselves are or would like to be/do.

That's it. Liberalism = Projection.

It really IS a mental disorder.

brian   ·  February 16, 2010 11:36 AM

Yeah, how dare all that "science" and "research" and "experiments" disagree with your pre-concieved notions!

RWC   ·  February 17, 2010 5:06 PM

Actually, the "science" and "research" and "experiments" were manipulated to agree with the pre-conceived notions of the "scientists":

Eric Scheie   ·  February 17, 2010 6:08 PM

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