Are liberals really wet?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the impact that politicians’ facial appearance has on voters’ choices.  Another big predictor of electoral success is the policies of the candidate’s party.  Is it possible to predict which policies will be attractive to voters?

Stereotypes suggest that different types of people are drawn to different ideologies.  The liberal is a beard-wearing, sandal-sporting, yoghurt-eating wimp.  The hawkish conservative is made of sterner stuff.  But do actual voters conform to the mould?


To find out, a group in America invited voters with strong political beliefs to their lab for some tests.  On the basis of a questionnaire, they split the volunteers into two groups.  The first group wanted to increase political protections, and typically wanted more military spending, warrantless searches, and the death penalty.  The second group were more likely to be pacifists and open to immigration.

The scientists then set about scaring the participants and measuring the results.  In the midst of a series of innocuous pictures, they showed them a large spider on a terrified face, and a maggot-infested wound.  They startled the volunteers with sudden blasts of loud noise.

To find out how successful they’d been at frightening their participants, the scientists measured two things.  When we’re faced with a threat we sweat a little, and this increases the conductance of our skin.  We also blink more when we’re startled.  On both of these measures, the volunteers who had stronger support for protective policies frightened more easily.  It was those with the more liberal outlook who had a smaller fear response.  

This isn’t the only study which found that conservatives and liberals react differently to surprises.  David Amodio and colleagues asked students to play a game of ‘Go / No Go’ whilst their brains were scanned.  In this game, a signal telling the player to quickly hit a button is repeatedly flashed on a screen.  Occasionally, an alternative message is shown instead, and when this happens, players must resist hitting the button.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and the button was hit about two-fifths of the time when it shouldn’t have been.  But the students who described themselves as being more liberal were better at playing the game than the conservatives, and their anterior cingulate cortices (a bit of the brain which, amongst other things, has a role in overriding automatic responses) were more active when the ‘No Go’ signal was displayed.

Rather than being solely determined by cold, rational thought, our political views are influenced by our physiological reactions and automatic brain responses.  But it’s the liberals rather than the conservatives that seem better at coping with shocks.  Perhaps it takes a certain toughness to go out in public with sandals and a beard.