Why Is the Conservative Brain More Fearful? The Alternate Reality Right-Wingers Inhabit Is Terrifying
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Consider for a moment just how terrifying it must be to live life as a true believer on the right. Reality is scary enough, but the alternative reality inhabited by people who watch Glenn Beck, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or think Michele Bachmann isn't a joke must be nothing less than horrifying.
Research suggests that conservatives are, on average, more susceptible to fear than those who identify themselves as liberals. Looking at MRIs of a large sample of young adults last year, researchers at University College London discovered that “greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala” ( $$). The amygdala is an ancient brain structure that's activated during states of fear and anxiety. (The researchers also found that “greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex” – a region in the brain that is believed to help people manage complexity.)
That has implications for our political world. In a recent interview, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, explained, “The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you're moving automatically to protect yourself.”
The finding also fits with other data. Mooney discusses studies conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in which self-identified liberals and conservatives were shown images – apolitical images – that were intended to elicit different emotions. Writing at Huffington Post , Mooney explains that “there were images that caused fear and disgust -- a spider crawling on a person's face, maggots in an open wound -- but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit.” The researchers noted two differences between the groups. The researchers studied their subjects' reactions by tracking their eye movements and monitoring their “skin conductivity” – a measure of one's autonomic nervous system's reaction to stimuli.
Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or "attentional" patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and [then] spent more time fixating on them.
Mooney concludes that this “new research suggests [that] conservatism is largely a defensive ideology -- and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”
But those cognitive biases are only part of the story of how a political movement in the wealthiest, most secure nation in the world have come to view their surroundings with such dread. The other half of the equation is a conservative media establishment that feeds members of the movement an almost endless stream of truly terrifying scenarios.
The phenomenon of media “siloing” is pretty well understood – in an era when dozens of media sources are a click away, people have a tendency to consume more of those that conform to their respective worldviews. But there is some evidence that this phenomenon is more pronounced on the right – conservative intellectuals have had a long-running debate about the significance of “ epistemic closure” within their movement.
So conservatives appear to be more likely to be hard-wired to be highly sensitive to perceived threats, and their chosen media offers them plenty. But that's not the whole story because of one additional factor. Since 9/11, and especially since the election of President Barack Obama, one of the most significant trends in America's political discourse is the “mainstreaming” of what were previously considered to be fringe views on the right. Theories that were once relegated to the militia movement can now be heard on the lips of elected officials and television personalities like Glenn Beck.