21 November 2014

Innate Political Partisanship

Welcome back. Did you vote? So what happened to throw the bums out? We reelected nearly every Congressmen to those 471 seats that were up for grabs. I suppose it’s really throw your bums out, not mine.

Cartoon should show the country
not the political parties getting
bruised. (multiple websites)
We did tell them to end partisanship and get something done, but that’s not going to be easy. Research, particularly over the past decade, suggests the potential for political partisanship goes pretty deep--that it’s physiological! It’s sort of like how tall you’ll be when you’re born. Here are two studies I thought told the story--and it’s a pretty cool story.

Physiological and Attention Links with Political Ideology

Researchers from the University of Nebraska conducted two experiments. For the first experiment, following a survey of political, personality and demographic information, physiological response data were collected on 46 test participants who were clearly left-leaning liberals or right-leaning conservatives.

The participants were shown 33 images while their electrodermal activity (skin conductance) was measured. Electrodermal activity has long been accepted as a good measure of emotion, arousal and attention.

The images had been rated by 126 judges on a nine-point scale of whether each image made them feel happy/positive (e.g., cute rabbit) or unhappy/negative (e.g., spider on a face). The judges also noted how strongly they felt an emotional reaction and the specific emotion (e.g., fear). Images of well-known political figures were also included.

Test results showed right-leaning participants exhibited greater electrodermal increases for unpleasant images compared to pleasant images and for politicians with whom they disagreed compared to politicians with whom they agreed. Left-leaning participants exhibited the opposite responses.

For the second experiment, the researchers administered an eye-tracking test to 76 undergraduates, whose political orientation was also collected. 

Eye tracker used in study (EyeLink II
from www.sr-research.com/EL_II.html)
The students viewed a series of image collages for 8 seconds each. Each collage was composed of four, same-size images. Six of the collages contained three unpleasant images and one pleasant image, and six collages contained three pleasant images and one unpleasant image. The students were free to direct their gaze toward any image.

The investigation focused on two measurements: dwell time--how long students spent looking at each image in each collage, and first fixation time--how long it took for students to look at either a pleasant or unpleasant image.

These test results showed right-leaning participants gazed longer at and fixated faster on unpleasant images than on pleasant images, while left-leaning participants exhibited the opposite responses, devoting more attention to pleasant images.

Add Brain Imaging

A recent collaborative study led by researchers from Virginia Tech added functional magnetic resonance image analysis to the investigation of physiological links with political orientation.

Example of an fMRI scanner
(photo from fmri.ucsd.edu/)
The researchers presented 80 nonpolitical, evocative images (20 each of “disgusting,” “threatening,” “pleasant” and “neutral” images) to 83 participants, who were in an fMRI scanner.

The participants subsequently rated on a nine-point scale the same images as disgusting, threatening or pleasant; and they completed questionnaires on their political attitudes, disgust sensitivity and state/trait anxiety level.

To test whether brain responses to evocative images predict individual scores on a standard political ideology assay, the researchers analyzed the fMRI data with a machine-learning method.

The key finding was with disgusting images, especially those related to animal-reminder disgust (e.g., mutilated body). Those images generated brain responses that were highly predictive of political orientation even though the predictions did not agree with the ratings the participants compiled after the fMRI scans. Notably, a single disgusting image was sufficient to make accurate predictions about an individual’s political ideology, and only the disgusting images supported the fMRI-based predictions.

Wrap Up

Keys for compromise
(multiple websites)
The message of these findings is See, there is a difference. Those on opposite sides of the political spectrum may simply experience the world differently. Change is always possible, but we can at least hope that our elected leaders will go beyond reacting in accordance with any innate political orientation. If they stop and think, maybe they’ll even compromise. Thanks for stopping by.


-University of Nebraska study in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B journal: rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/367/1589/640.full.html#ref-list-1
-Virginia Tech led study in Current Biology and article on Science Daily website:
-Earlier blog post on more drastic moments in Congressional compromise: www.retired--nowwhat.com/2013/07/congressional-action-addendum.html

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