Maybe Congress can't help it? Researchers say cause of political differences could be hard-wired

'Negativity bias' may explain political divide

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Are our political leanings as much preordained as whether or not we’ll have blue eyes or stubby fingers?

A trio of political scientists say that there are some striking differences between the way liberals and conservatives perceive and react to things around them, and they may well be genetic.

“Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA,’’ the political scientists argue in an article published in the current issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences

It seems conservatives have what the researchers and other social scientists term a “negativity bias” – that is, they’re quicker to detect threats and more comfortable with stability and order, not change or sudden innovation.

Of course, everyone tends to react more strongly to negative events that are clear threats – a snake in our path or a person brandishing a knife. Those reactions are basic survival tools honed over thousands of years. And some studies also show that conservatives, while quicker to see threats, are happier overall than liberals.

But it is the intensity and focus on negative things that divide political camps – and likely has done so throughout human history -- say John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and John Alford of Rice. In all sorts of studies, samples and countries “conservatives have been found to be quicker to focus on the negative, to spend longer looking at the negative, and to be more distracted by the negative,’’ they write.

In their own study, the researchers used eye-tracking devices and skin sensors to record reactions to negative imagery. They found that conservative tended to have more intense reactions to negative images like people eating worms or houses burning than did those of liberal bent.

Hibbing said in a press release issued with the paper: “Conservatives are fond of saying `liberals just don’t get it’ and liberals are convinced that conservatives magnify threats. Systematic evidence suggests both are correct.”

Still, many would argue that something more sophisticated and rational than “gut” reactions guides our political decision-making, the researchers note. “[Some] believe that higher-level decision making, such as that involving politics, is the product of rational, conscious responses to the objective world and therefore not influenced by forces outside conscious awareness,’’ they write.          

“This flattering view of human decision making in the area of politics is most likely unwarranted.”

Print this article Back to Top

DecodeDC's Mission

DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.