Go Easy On Conservatives -- Science Says They're Super-Sensitive

Maybe they have such a problem with bleeding hearts because they actually can’t stand the sight of blood.
Publish date:
August 5, 2014
politics, science, studies, psychology, sensitivity, conservatives, liberals, negativity bias, physiology

If you’re a liberal (full, unsurprising disclosure: I am) you’re probably well aware of some of the negatively connoted adjectives conservatives use to describe you: bleeding-heart, permissive, oversensitive, etc.

However, in the never-ending and always amusing analysis of the difference between liberal and conservative brains, the latest study presents an ironic find: Conservatives are the Sensitive Sallies.

Published in the latest issue of Behavioral & Brain Sciences, researchers from the University of Nebraska and Rice University call out conservatives for being the super-sensitive ones: “In many respects, compared with liberals, conservatives tend to be more psychologically and physiologically sensitive to environmental stimuli generally but in particular to stimuli that are negatively valenced, whether threatening or merely unexpected.”

Sensitivity doesn’t mean empathy -- liberals score way higher in that category. Sensitivity in the conservative sense apparently applies to themselves, their long-established conformity comfort zone, and their specific set of morals, in the interest of protecting, well, their interests.

It’s a result of a tendency towards negativity bias, the psychological principle that humans focus more on bad stuff. We all do it, but this study finds conservatives do it a hell of a lot more.

“As we have seen,” the researchers write, “those individuals with politically conservative orientations display elevated physiological response to negative stimuli, devote more attention to negative stimuli, possess distinct self-reported psychological patterns when asked to imagine negative stimuli,” and may even show differences at the genetic level, such as shorter dopamine receptor alleles.

“Environmental stimuli that are unexpected, ambiguous, uncertain, or disorderly also appear to generate more response and attention from conservatives than liberals at a variety of levels, including brain activation patterns, sympathetic nervous system response, cognitive behaviors, and self-reports,” the researchers write. And they feel this deep-rooted reactivity is totally in tune with conservatives’ tendency to support defense spending, freak out about immigrants, reject information, oppose gay marriage, and get hung up on perceived authorities like the Bible.

The researchers invited and included reactions to their study from other political-science and psychological experts, which is where I found what I think is the most interesting example of how conservatives are fragile little kittens. A trio of Canadian psychology professors cited a 2008 study by the very same researchers (and a few others) that found conservatives aren’t just more sensitive to negative stimuli that could be reasonably considered related to politics; they’re more sensitive and reactive to basically everything remotely threatening.

Subjects were shown photos of a bunch of things, both positive and negative, the latter including maggots in a wound, a big spider on a scared person’s face, and a bloody face. Jingoistic, death-penalty-loving, Iraq-war-championing conservatives (I’m not saying all conservatives are those things, but they actually were in the case of these subjects) reacted more quickly and with greater physiological fear responses to those icky images than the liberal subjects.

The researchers aren't trying to undermine conservative reasoning with this information, but instead, they say, it could foster a greater understanding of where one's political disputants are coming from. But interestingly, they seem to be saying that in anticipation of an oversensitive response from conservatives.

"The controversial nature of politics makes research on the differences between liberals and conservatives particularly sensitive. People are quick to be defensive and to suspect that their particular ideological beliefs are being defamed," they write. "As a result, it is appropriate to note in closing that citing differences in the psychological and physiological traits of liberals and conservatives is not equivalent to declaring one ideology superior to the other."

Does this research make you look at conservatives a little differently? Do you think conservatives will be willing/able to see themselves differently?