Fear, conservatism and out-group attitudes: a genetic link?

Australia’s eight-month election campaign is apparently underway. It’s a prospect that excites only those shady consultants, pollsters and party power-brokers whose livelihoods depend on running focus groups, devising strategies and pulling political strings.

Instead of ignoring the whole show, I have been reading up on insights that biology can provide into an election campaign. Perhaps some political consultants will want to gratuitously overpay me to talk about this stuff at some posh lunch or dinner?

For more than 60 years, psychologists have probed the underpinnings of variation in political opinion and, especially, left-right differences. Ten years ago, a meta-analysis of 88 studies across 12 countries and over 22,000 cases showed that political conservatism is strongly predicted by local instability of conditions, as well as an individual’s anxiety about death, inability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, needs for order and structure, fear of threat and loss.

Conservatives are also less open than other people to new experiences and have somewhat lower self esteem, on average.

New developments in personality psychology, evolution and neuroscience have added to what we know about the left-right divide. Last year’s interminable American election campaign unleashed a slew of studies and books concerning the ways in which biology shapes politics, campaigning, and election outcomes. A lot of the research documents differences between Republicans and Democrats. Some of the insights are peculiar to the US. Others provide general perspectives on the reflexes and intuitions underpinning conservative or progressive political identities.

Last year, in this column, I touched several times on the biological underpinnings of political opinion:

 

Fear

Cooperation with members of one’s own group, and mistrust of strangers who are not part of one’s own group, provides a central tension in all human social living. This tension constitutes the origin of xenophobia as well as its mirror-twin: zealous nationalism or patriotism.

Some new research adds considerably to our understanding of the relationships between fear, feelings toward out-group members and left-right political attitudes, as well as to why not everybody responds to fear in the same way.

Peter K. Hatemi and colleagues report in the American Journal of Political Science that people more disposed to social fears tend also to be less tolerant of immigrants and people of other races, and they identify more often as politically conservative. That’s old news. What sets this paper apart is that it comes from a study of nearly 30,000 people in over 8,636 families. And this allowed the authors to explore how genetic relatedness and shared environment shape the associations between fear, out-group attitudes and political conservatism.

Some 62% of the association between fear and conservatism was due to shared genetic origins, and 75% of the association between fear and negative attitudes toward outgroups came from a shared genetic basis. This makes the associations much more powerful than mere correlations: it suggests that the genes that dispose individuals to fear also tend to dispose them toward conservative attitudes, especially a mistrust of out-groups.

How these associations develop with experience, and why these traits share so much of their genetic basis remain to be tested. Just because two traits share considerable genetic variation does not mean political attitudes are fixed by some nightmarish determinist destiny. The associations between fear and attitudes grew weaker, in this study, in more educated individuals.

People’s political identities and attitudes are built from a bewildering number of environmental and genetic sources. I predict than in time the interactions between environment and genotype will be exposed as complex and shifting.

One thing I noticed from the first figure in the AJPS paper (see below) is that low fear levels don’t reveal much about a person’s politics. Low-fear people can be found across the political spectrum. But high-fear people tended to be universally conservative.

 

As Rose McDermott, the study’s second author put it:

It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative.

Stay vigilant

Politicians have always known that they could channel the fears of voters for short-term electoral gain. I recall from my teenage years in South Africa how, whenever P.W. Botha’s apartheid government seemed vulnerable, they, and the state broadcaster, would revert – entirely without subtlety – to emphasising “swart gevaar” (Afrikaans for “black danger”).

In Australia, as in many other parts of the world, immigration and the issue of refugees stokes out-group fear. And one can be certain that politicians will provide a rich supply of oxygen to those fears over the coming campaign.

Conservative thought has plenty to offer, and there are usually many good reasons to consider conservative ideas. But politicians who cynically prod the fear reflexes of their constituents to tap into their ancient prejudices are sacrificing the public good for their personal gain. And they should be challenged and ridiculed when they do it.

Hopefully, an emerging understanding of exactly how the well-worn links between fear and voter conservatism work can be used to blunt the effectiveness of scaremongering politicians. And perhaps an understanding of how promoting and valuing rational thought can be used to elevate the quality of our politics?

Not for the first time, I think Noel Turnbull’s recommendations from an article he published at Crikey.com last year bear quoting in full:

One way to encourage the slower, more rational thoughts, which also encourage our better angels is very much in the hands of politicians. For instance, if it was left to a vote capital punishment would never have been abolished in many Western countries but politicians took the leap on moral grounds helped by extensive public campaigns.

When politicians reverted to pro-capital punishment atavism, such as former Victorian Liberal opposition leader Alan Brown, their leadership came under threat. In contrast one of his successors, Jeff Kennett, was extraordinarily principled on questions such as race and just refused opportunities to add to the fires and the atavistic comments while publicly demonstrating a strong commitment to multiculturalism.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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Valentine’s day in the modern world

St Valentine’s day caught our household by surprise this morning. My daughter, the only family member who shows even a flicker of interest, loves what we call “Balance-time day” because it comes with free license to generate and dispense cards. And nothing is as important as making and giving cards.

Rather than buy in to saccharine cards, over-priced bouquets and chock-full restaurants on a school night, the rest of the family like to bunker down and wait for the red, white and pink tide to subside. Fair to say, we’d rather submit to an hour-long concert by a community recorder ensemble, including improvisations and a piece the ensemble wrote themselves. Not that that is an option this year.

But I’ve been wondering: does the practice of secret admirers sending cards to one another exist anymore, outside the craft-intensive world of grade school? Particularly as I’m currently researching how the internet is changing the ways in which people meet and find one another for romance, sex, marriage or more transactional arrangements.

Last week’s column about the Facebook app Bang with Friends is now far and away the most read piece I have written for The Conversation. I’m sure that is because of the high-level conceptual discussion of how any new technology shifts the balance of power in the dating and mating game. Continue reading Valentine’s day in the modern world

Sex and domesticity

The most erotic thing a man can do for a woman is…. the dishes.

You’ve no doubt encountered this oft-repeated claim, or one like it, before. In this case it comes from a source no less authoritative than Naomi Wolf, about 36 seconds into her 2007 interview with Ali G.

The “research has shown” bit seems to come from a rather flimsy survey that therapist Neil Chethick did for his book
VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think about Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment.

But the idea has legs. It taps into so many important veins of domestic angst: how can I spice up my sex life? How can I avoid doing the hoovering? Angst played out against the backdrop of ever-shifting sexual divisions of labour.

Yet, as always, reality is far more complex than the headlines. Some studies suggest that the more housework gets shared, the more sex the couple has. Other research claims that egalitarian couples have less passionate and satisfying sex lives. And still, millions of semi-domesticated men hang out for more wisdom on which chores to do and how to time them for maximum erotic payback.

If you’re one of them, you won’t have missed the recent news stories about a new paper in American Sociological Review that seems to overturn all the things you heard on Da Ali G Show. Continue reading Sex and domesticity

Better than sext? The new Facebook app that could change the mating market

I’m intrigued. And horrified. And curious. And incredulous.

Twitter, that lolly-bag of random ideas, just led me to a story on the website of Cosmopolitan magazine about a new FaceBook app called “Bang with Friends”.

Catchy.

Think I might go back to Scrabble.

According to Cosmo:

The way it works is you sign into the website using your Facebook profile, and then you anonymously register interest in, erm, banging your contacts. You actually click a button called “down to bang” for the guys you’re digging – slightly creepy, but hey, it’s better than a wall post expressing your intentions. If the guy(s) you pick haven’t pushed the button for you too, thus aren’t interested, then your crush remains a secret. But, if you did make their cut, then you are both made aware, in fact the “down to bang” button will change to “awaiting bang”…yep, there’s no skirting around the issue here.

For those who need to know – How to Bang http://bangwithfriends.com/fuck/how

I’m sure the delectable balance of intrigue and horror will propel many a media story about this new app and let slip an avalanche of moralising. I don’t really want to moralise here myself. All the important stuff can still be boiled down to two words:

Consenting Adults.

The way people find each other for romance and for sex has been changing ever since there first were people. The pace of change accelerates steadily, as economies and social institutions and communication technologies change. And the self-appointed gatekeepers of sex have exploded in “moral” outrage at every step along the way.

I don’t think of myself as old, but the world of sex and relationships that young people today seem to inhabit is not a world I recognise. Mobile phones, and the internet have revolutionised the business of finding one another and establishing both interest and rapport. At the risk of revealing my inner creep, I certainly wish there had been more of this stuff around when I was younger.

But one of my main research interests is sex, and especially the different interests that often generate conflict. This conflict simmers even between consenting adults who use protection and like each other – both in Facebookland and in real life (which I am told I can abbreviate IRL). And any device that changes the mating market can be used to tilt the balance in favour of one party over another.

Hell, why did these “university aged men” invent Bang with Friends other than to get more roots? And why, for that matter, did Zuckerberg (and accomplices) invent Facebook?

Bang with Friends opens up a world of awkward. How do you proceed once you get the “awaiting bang” all clear? And if someone is “good to bang”, then how do all the old-fashioned niceties that surround consent get dealt with?

Most of all, what kind of deception can we expect and anticipate?

As Conversation columnist Lauren Rosewarne put it, in another context:

People go online and pretend they are somebody else all the time. People we know in real life demonstrate all kinds of delusion and absurdity on Facebook. Craggy paedophiles routinely go into chat-rooms and pretend to be adolescent skaters and both single and married folks rapidly drop kilos, years and play up the pep constantly on dating websites.

This app doesn’t simply change the market for those folks who are looking for a “bang”. It changes Facebook for everybody else too. If this app catches on with enough people, and not just under-laid 22-year-old straight men, then anybody could find themselves on “down to bang” lists. And how long will it be till those “awaiting bang” notifications get shamed, with screenshots and all?

And that’s the thing about technologies that change the sexual and reproductive landscape: porn, Viagra, AIDS, the pill, safe abortion, amyl nitrate, legalised prostitution, priestly celibacy, IVF, cloning, sexting, daytime ads for ashleymaddison.com, erectile dysfunction drugs, and sham drugs. Anything that I’m allowed to Google at work and you aren’t. Every one of these changes the balance of interests between partners and changes the game, for better or worse. I wouldn’t want to stop progress, but I’m fascinated and at times a little scared about the consequences.

For the meantime Facebook is already a notorious tool for stalking. I can only imagine the incentive to unfriend exes, colleagues and creepy distant acquaintances has suddenly tilted dramatically.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.