Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Partisan Responses to Positive and Negative Stimuli

A political science team at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is studying the cognitive bases of political orientation and has identified a critical distinction between liberals and conservatives.  John Hibbing, the principal investigator, describes his research as “taking a step back” from the usual fundamental differences ascribed to Democrats and Republicans.

The study tracks how subjects respond to various images that are categorized as positive and negative; preliminary results show that those who concentrate on positive images tend to be liberal, and those who focus on negative ones are usually conservative.  Conservatives in the study also exhibit increased sweating and blinking when exposed to negative images, suggesting they are more sensitive to threatening stimuli.  Further, they look at these negative images more frequently and for longer than do liberals with positive stimuli.

University of Nebraska investigators are quick to point out that these findings account for just a fraction of what influences political affiliation; nonetheless, they certainly have relevance.  Perhaps many actors on both sides of the aisle really do perceive the issues differently on a psychological level, and the resulting gridlock is legitimate (and not artificially designed).  Or perhaps the designers of political communications intentionally craft messages to rouse the attention of the target audience, thus contributing to polarization. 

The implications of the findings may seem obvious, but the University of Nebraska’s research team has genuinely advanced understanding of what material grabs liberals’ and conservatives’ attention.  Partisan responses and inclinations are obvious in the current election cycle – Obama still speaks of aspirations for the future, while his Republican opponents focus on the negative aspects of Obama’s presidency, and the threat it poses to America’s future. 

What are other possible implications of Hibbing’s findings?  What do they suggest about the deeper worldviews of conservatives and liberals?  And could the results be used to justify/promote further political gridlock, or will we find a way to reconcile how the two sides perceive important issues?

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