The Emotions Behind This Election

There are a few last-minute unknowables in what still looks like a GOP victory on Tuesday. But perhaps the biggest unknowable is still what this election is about. I made my own stab at an answer last week, and I recommend Ross Douthat’s musings on the same subject. But one thing that is hard to measure is the shift in political atmosphere this summer and fall. The news that has penetrated most deeply has all been Cole-Ebola-ISIS-2-690 (1) 2about threats from the outside, threats that make anyone want to pull up the drawbridge against an invasive world. This is an emotional environment tailor-made for conservative success.

The Fox Media Industrial Complex has worked these stories with its usual assiduity, and combined, they pack a big punch. You have the flood of illegal immigrants – aka, desperate children seeking refuge from mass violence – at the border. You have Putin posturing around his near-abroad, reminding us of past dangers. You have the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq – an almost text-book case of images and memes likely to trigger atavism and paranoia. And then, like some last sign of the apocalypse, you have the Ebola virus – seeping onto our shores, and turning even the most mild-mannered folks into quarantine enthusiasts. That all of these threats seem temporarily checked or calmed or over-rated hasn’t penetrated the national frontal cortex. What’s still there is fear. Or rather, a series of issues that prompt disgust and revulsion at the other – which is an extremely potent weapon in an election season.

And I’m not just blah blah blahing about this, while we all quietly scan the electoral polling data for the actual news. In a newly published study, neuroscientists found that they could predict people’s political leanings with surprising accuracy based on how their brains reacted to repulsive images:

In the experiment, subjects sat in a brain scanner while being shown a mix of images. Some of them were downright nasty, Ebola Virusshowing filth, rot, and decay. Others were neutral or pleasant — like landscape shots, or pictures of babies. The researchers noted the neural response to each. Afterward, the study subjects took a political survey that asked them about their thoughts on issues, such as having prayer in public schools and same-sex marriage legalization.

The researchers, led by Virginia Tech professor Read Montague, found that patterns of brain activity after viewing the gross images could be grouped together based on political leanings. In other words, conservatives reacted one way to the images (at least on a neurological level) and liberals reacted another way. When asked to rate the disgusting pictures, one group wasn’t more grossed out than the other. But the subconscious reactions varied enough for the researchers to tell conservatives and liberals apart.

Rick Nauert discusses the study with Montague in more detail:

Responses to disgusting images could predict, with 95 percent to 98 percent accuracy, how a person would answer questions on the political survey.

“The results suggest political ideologies are mapped onto established neural responses that may have served to protect our ancestors against environmental threats,” Montague said. Those neural responses could be passed down family lines — it’s likely that disgust reactions are inherited.

“We pursued this research because previous work in a twin registry showed that political ideology — literally the degree to which someone is liberal or conservative — was highly heritable, almost as heritable as height,” said Montague. “Conservatives tend to have more magnified responses to disgusting images, but scientists don’t know exactly why,” Montague said. Investigators believe the responses could be a callback to the deep, adverse reactions primitive ancestors needed to avoid contamination and disease.

Judis is skeptical of this sort of research:

Academics in the social sciences are always on the look out for ways in which they can ground their squishy subjective speculations in the hard terrain of science. The more mathematical symbols and complicated flow-charts or arcane graphs a journal article contains the better. Even literature professors have looked toward obscurantist continental philosophers to turn novels and poems into “texts” that can be analyzed and charted. Twentieth century philosophy is littered with attempts to reduce language to mathematic formulations. The drive to reduce human behavior to neurons and genes is only the latest expression of this drive to turn social scientists into real scientists.

Jon Green pushes back on Judis:

Long story short, research into how political attitudes and behaviors are affected by our biology — especially our genes — is very new and very clunky, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Judis is right to be skeptical, but it isn’t fair for him to be as dismissive as he is.

I too see the new knowledge of our genetics an important addition to our understanding of the world, including politics. They cannot replace all the other tools of analysis we have – history, ideology, demography, and human agency. But they can supplement them, and tell us, as in this election, a little more about what we already kind of know.