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Some Political Views May be Related to Physiology: Audio Transcript

Kelly: Thank you for talking to us today, Dr. Hibbing. We're at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, talking about physiological research and political science. So why don't you start by explaining to us what your experiment entailed?

John Hibbing: Well, the goal of our experiment was to find out if there were deep seeded physiological differences between people with different political beliefs. In the past, political scientists have tended to address political beliefs by surveys. And we wanted to take it down to the physical level. So we used some fairly standard psychophysiological equipment. Some of these measures deal with heart rate, something called pre-ejection period which measures how quickly blood is evacuating the heart.

The particular measures we focused on in this study were mostly two. One is orbicularus oculi which is the muscle that goes around your eye and is activated when one blinks. And what you do is you pump some loud noise, not loud enough to break anybody's eardrums. But it's kind of like white static. And you do this at unexpected intervals. And then people blink when this happens. It's very not to blink. And the equipment ... two sensors underneath the eye allows us to measure quantitatively how hard someone blinks. It's called blink amplitude.

The second measure we use is something that's more familiar to people who've watched a lot of detective shows. It's skin conductants where you've got sensors on fingers. And you pump some electrical current through and you see how quickly it moves through. And, of course, it moves more quickly if there's some moisture there. And there's moisture there if you've had a sympathetic nervous response. Which it doesn't mean you have to sweat. But it means that some of the glands that are buried in the layers of the skin have secreted a little bit of moisture.

And so if it has, that's probably an indication that your sympathetic nervous response has kicked in just a little bit. And there again, you have another quantitative measure of people's reaction to various stimuli. So then, we provided these individuals who are hooked up to these sensors with stimuli. Some of them were of a disgusting sort. Some of them were of a threatening sort. And the area where we found the most notable results came with these images that were threatening. Or the same would be true with the loud noises.

In other words, that's kind of a threat. In fact, what you're measuring there is people's tendency to protect their vital organ. So a blink and kind of pulling the head down and you're making it a little bit less likely that your head's going to be chopped off. Or that your eyes are going to be damaged is a crucial organ. So that's a reflex, happens extremely quickly. The sympathetic nervous response tied in with the skin conductants is a little bit slower, but still very rapid and out of the control of the individual in terms of it being a sympathetic response rather than something that is conscious.

Kelly: What kind of pictures did you show?

John Hibbing: Well, we relied primarily on three. One was a very large spider on the face of a person. And the person looked scared. The other was an open wound with some maggots in it. And the third was a man with a very bloody face who had clearly been wounded. We would like to do future research on particular types of threat. You know, maybe some of it maybe a social threat where there is a predator, a bad guy, lurking around. Those are surprisingly hard to find. They're hard to find unless you want something that's obviously staged.

So we relied more on things ... we wanted something that was really very non-political. You know, there's nothing political about a loud noise. There's nothing political about a spider. So we wanted to see if there were these baseline reactions to threat that would then predict political beliefs. If we saw that people were reacting differently to pictures that had clear ideological connotations, you know, images of things that were on the left or on the right, electric chair or something, you know, that could be tied in.

We thought the results would be less compelling. But since they're non-political, very general images of threat or noises that are threatening, we think that makes the findings somewhat more interesting.

Kelly: So tie this in with political science and the findings in the physiological reactions that people had and what conclusions you draw from that.

John Hibbing: Well, the thing that we found is that by knowing how sensitive people were to these threats, whether they be auditory threats or visual threats, that we could make predictions about their political beliefs. And in terms of their political beliefs, we focused primarily on things that we called concerns with protecting kind of a social unit. So the idea is we've got this unit. Maybe it's the United States. And we want to protect us from outsiders. So we might be opposed to immigration. We might advocate a lot of defense spending.

We want to protect the group from inside norm violators who might be criminals. So we might advocate capital punishment. We advocate patriotism and we like leaders who are strong and clear and who are going to be able to protect us from those outsiders or the bad guys on the inside. We might even be opposed to pornography or any kind of corrosive element that we see being present with the social unit.

So on the other hand, you've got people who are maybe more supportive of pacifism as opposed to patriotism. They're opposed to gun control ... sorry, they advocate gun control as opposed to thinking this is necessary to protect things. So, there are lots of areas where you can see that someone who maybe is a little bit less sensitive to threat than would project those kinds of feelings into the political arena. And so those are the things we're looking at.

I think it's important to avoid making broad statements that we're making claims about, liberals generally and conservatives generally. I'm afraid that this might be how the story comes out. And certainly a lot of those issues that I just talked about are pretty crucial to being a liberal or being a conservative as we define it today. But there are some other things that are equally crucial such as economic attitudes. And we purposefully excluded those. Because we didn't think we had a really clear hypothesis that just because I feel threatened by loud noises that that's going to make me more or less likely to advocate redistribution of tax money to the needy.

So we wanted to focus on areas where we thought there was a little bit clearer connection. And the notion that you would feel threatened more readily and that we would want policies that perhaps were more protective. So that you could avoid those threats had some logical appeal.

Kelly: So if a person would look at this study, could they break it down simply to if I feel threatened I'm going to vote for one candidate or the other?

John Hibbing: No, unfortunately ... or may be fortunately, I don't know, in the social sciences, of course, we don't find results that are anywhere near that clear and compelling. When we say we can predict, that doesn't mean that we can predict accurately. It just means that if somebody said here's some information and how sensitive this individual was to threat, I would use that to make a prediction. And I would be right a little bit more often than I would be if I didn't have that information at all.

So it's not as though we can close the books and that somehow if you are fairly sensitive to threat, then we know for sure that you're going to take this particular position on all these issues. It's nowhere near like that. The relationships are fairly weak. They're statistically significant. And we feel comfortable with them. Obviously, it's going to be useful to replicate our results with other groups. We used just forty-six individuals who were adults in the Eastern Nebraska area. And, you know, maybe there's something peculiar about them.

We did, however, include a lot of the standard controls and procedures that one needs to do to try to generalize from these findings. But in that sense, it's just one set of results. And I think it will really be exciting to find out if when other people do similar kinds of studies, they find the same results as we do.

Kelly: What do you see pollsters or political scientists or others being able to do with this information?

John Hibbing: Well, I guess I don't see any immediate political relevance of this. I almost hope there isn't. You know, as a social scientist, my job is to find out what makes people tick. So I'm very curious why people behave the way they do. Why is it so difficult to change people's political beliefs? And this is especially true of those who have strong political beliefs. And by the way, those are the only individuals in this study. We did a ... we contacted people randomly in this area. And then we screened out those people who said I really don't know much about politics. I don't care about it.

So we have people that have some fairly strong beliefs. They care about politics. And then we focused on those individuals. And to me, it helps understand a little bit why those individuals tend to be so difficult to change. And if you've ever had the experience I have where you're having a discussion with somebody who has contrary political views to you, you think you've laid out a case that's just beautiful and flawless and you don't budge those people at all.

And it seems like they just are starting from a different point. And I think what our research suggests is that maybe that's exactly what's happening. You have people who are experiencing the world, experiencing threat differently. And it's not a question of me being persuasive to you or you being persuasive to me. It's just a question that we have these very different physiological orientations. We're not sure where they came from. It maybe genetic. It may have been something that happened in childhood.

We do know though it's very deep because it's a reflex. It's not something that you can kind of just change tomorrow and say, well, maybe I'll be a little bit less concerned about threat. These run deep. We do know that. And to me the depth of that maybe a little bit of an asset in helping to figure out why people are so stubborn in their political beliefs.

And, you know, I could be nave in this. But I even have the hope that it might facilitate understanding just a little bit. Instead of political opponents thinking that their opposite party is simply being willfully bullheaded. You can say, well, okay. They see the world a little differently than I do. And I guess I don't hope that this somehow makes people more relaxed about their political beliefs. But I do hope it might facilitate understanding of what we're really up against here. And that people haven't just thought about things differently, but they feel things differently.

Kelly: Looking at this study, what do you see the big take away being?

John Hibbing: It does suggest that we need to change a little bit the way we think about political attitudes. And I think most scholars and lay people alike have the notion that political attitudes are formed by our environmental experiences. And we're not saying that those experiences are unimportant. But we're saying that along with those environmental experiences, you have certain predispositions, certain orientations. And that may lead us to kind of be especially sensitive to certain kinds of environmental experiences.

So I think we need to broaden out and recognize that people experience the world differently. And that these different experiential tendencies are reflected in political attitudes.

Kelly: We're at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, today talking to Dr. John Hibbing. Thank you for being with us.

John Hibbing: My pleasure, Kelly.


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