Fear and Politics

September 19, 2008 at 1:50pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

Two of my former professors have found yet more evidence that there’s a strong link between our biology and our political leanings. UNL Political Science Professors Kevin Smith and John Hibbing (and other authors) published their results in Science (view abstract). You’re probably not as excited by this sort of research as I am, but frankly I think it’s fascinating to watch the intermingling of the social and biological sciences.

Before you jump to any conclusions, let’s be clear her that the authors are not saying “If your biology is X, your political beliefs are Y”. Nobody is anywhere near those sorts of conclusions. Rather, studies like the one conducted by the authors are helping to prove what should seem pretty logical: an individual’s physical responses to stimuli have an effect on that individual’s attitudes. That’s not surprising, is it?

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The Comments

Buffmeat September 19, 2008 at 3:05pm

I love Kevin Smith’s class.  I was just a business major, but I’m glad I took it.

Dave K September 19, 2008 at 3:31pm

Ken Burns ... uh, I mean Kevin Smith, is one of the best professors/teachers on campus.  I took a couple of his classes, and he is fantastic.  I was one of maybe a million students he’s had, yet he still said hi to me every time he saw me on campus.  At first I thought it was bizarre how a Brit was talking about American politics, I soon realized he knew more about the American political system than probably 99.99999% of Americans.

I’ll try to separate my belief that most psychological research is common sense provided in a long-winded, complicated, and borderline nonsensical format (APA) from my analysis of this study.  It looks like they’ve concluded that they’ve figured out, among others, conservatives (more specifically, the bitter clingers), through 46 Nebraskans.  I see the acceptable sample size in order to achieve “findings [that] are extremely important” has decreased significantly since I was doing research.  Such standard would have meant spending less than 500 hours in the basement of Burnett Hall my senior year.  Nonetheless, if this kind of information excites people, then great.  If it makes some think they have figured politics out through biology, then even better.

I’d be interested in reading the full article if it’s made available for free.

peter September 19, 2008 at 3:47pm

Click on the link to the abstract.  At the bottom of the page, there’s a link to the full article.  (Hopefully it doesn’t work for me just because I’m on the campus network)

Mr. Wilson September 19, 2008 at 3:51pm

Small groups can be very informative. Focus groups, for example, shouldn’t have more than a dozen or so participants, and the information gathered from those participants is often quite useful. You simply have to be careful about the conclusions you draw. The fact this was published in Science and not, say, Newsweek, leads me to believe the authors don’t make any conclusions they shouldn’t be making.

And no, they have not “figured politics out through biology”. Nobody claims that they have. Well, except maybe the mass media. But they’ll report any scientific achievement as breathlessly as possible, facts be damned. Prime example: the LHC.

Mr. Wilson September 19, 2008 at 3:52pm

I believe you have to purchase a membership in order to read the article.

Swid September 19, 2008 at 3:56pm

If anyone wants a copy of the article, I can send it to you (emailing me is just a click away in the Member List). wink

Mr. Wilson September 19, 2008 at 4:00pm

That’s very kind of you to offer, Swid. Swid’s profile.

peter September 19, 2008 at 4:19pm

Hibbing gave a very interesting talk on this subject last year as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lectures Series.

The next one is Oct 30 in the Nebraska Union by this guy:


peter September 19, 2008 at 4:20pm

at 3:30 (sorry)

Dave K September 19, 2008 at 5:57pm

I agree with what you said about drawing conclusions. This statement, however, illustrates everything wrong with pop psychology/pop research: “But new research suggests that people with radically different social attitudes also differ in certain automatic fear responses.”

It isn’t much different than the stuff that fills the pages of women’s and men’s lifestyle magazines.  The type of stuff that has people throwing all their white rice away because some study somewhere has evidence that white rice may increase the likelihood that you might have increased blood pressure.

Fletch September 20, 2008 at 1:27am

We have profiles?

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