How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

How clean is that finger, Donald?
How clean is that finger, Donald?

Move over Nate Silver! The statistician and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t may have called 49 out of 50 states right in the 2012 US Presidential election. But today I note that my predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections were 100 percent correct.

Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.

One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.

But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.

Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.

Turns out that’s exactly what happened. Psychological Science just published a paper by Alec T. Beall, Marlie K. Hofer and Mark Schaller with the captivating title Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?. Schaller was the first to propose the crucial, to that time unexpected, links between disease, disgust and political traits like outgroup fear and conservatism. And his group lead the world in studying not only the links but the psychological basis for those links.

Outbreak

The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.

Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.

Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.

Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

Fortunately for West Africa, and for progressive politicians in general, the Ebola outbreak is largely over. That won’t stop politicians from appealing to voters’ basest fears. Donald Trump has done so shamelessly in his claims that Mexican immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border”.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:

“Normal,” the Republican presidential front-runner insisted. “Strong.” “Good size.” “Great.” “Fine.” “Slightly large, actually.”

Perhaps it isn’t the size of his hands that matters in this election. Perhaps we should be paying attention to how clean he can keep them?

AC/DC “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” Live at the River Plate.The Conversation

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Explaining Schwarzenegger – men, biceps and the politics of getting what you want

This weekend I gained a grudging appreciation for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator, not the Terminator.

Having watched Arnie’s political rise and fall from afar, he always seemed an odd chimera. Lines he’d delivered as the Terminator retrofitted to an ideology he’d borrowed from somebody else. A kind of populist piss-take exploiting name recognition among cinema-going-yet-politically-comatose voters.

But I’ve just read a paper that made Arnie slightly more intelligible to me. Entitled “The Ancestral Logic of Politics” the paper published last week in Psychological Science explored the link between male upper-body strength and assertion of economic self-interest.

The link between what and what?

Exactly.

The short story is that men with big biceps and who are relatively poor tend to be strongly in favour of social welfare, wealth redistribution and other economic programs associated with the political left. More so at least than equally poor but puny men. Whereas the exact opposite is true for wealthy men: the bigger the biceps the more right-leaning the inclination to economic redistribution.

Rational self-interest

In order to understand this finding we need to consider why people take on the political views they do. While people’s politics are shaped by many factors, self-interest is thought to be particularly strong. That’s not to say voters care only about themselves. But rather that an element of self-interest shaped their views.

With this in mind it isn’t hard to see why policies of social welfare and economic redistribution tend to win more support from the poor – they have much more to gain. Likewise, the twin obsessions of plutocrats – slashing spending and cutting taxes – really mean cutting expenditure on welfare and eliminating taxes that redistribute resources to those less fortunate or well-endowed.

If political views are forged out of rational self-interest, then attitudes to redistribution should follow a neat left-right divide, everything else being equal. But they seldom do.

The new paper, by Michael Bang Petersen, Daniel Sznycer, Aaron Sell, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby adds an interesting twist that might explain why the left-right distinction gets so very blurry.

They argue that for most of humanity’s evolutionary past, the biggest, strongest men were best able to assert themselves in negotiations, wrangling outcomes in their interest. Studies of negotiation and conflict in animals show that better fighters consistently gain a disproportionate share of any resource – without having to fight for it. Most negotiations are an ‘Asymmetric War of Attrition’ in which violence need not be deployed but only implied. The possibility of violence alone leads others to concede more than their share.

That’s where the expression “the lion’s share” comes from. Lions contribute little or nothing to most hunts, leaving the hard and dangerous work of killing prey to the lionesses. The lion then moves in and takes as much as he likes – and there is very little any lioness or cub can do about it.

People astutely judge the fighting abilities of other men – mostly by paying attention to upper body strength. And bicep size provides a most conspicuous, reliable cue of upper body strength.

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that men with greater upper body strength feel more entitled to having things go their way. And they become aggressive more easily. The same does not seem to apply – at least not to the same extent – among women.

The link between male upper body strength, fighting ability and dominance is nowhere near as strong today as it has been throughout our evolutionary past. And democratic processes ensure that strong men can no longer wrest political outcomes in their own interest. Or at least they can’t do so by brute strength alone.

Petersen and colleagues argue that we retain many of the psychological mechanisms whereby strong men assert themselves, and weaker men are more likely to concede. And that shows up in the conviction with which stronger and weaker men hold political views that are in their rational self-interest.

But the result does not apply among women.

Interestingly they repeated the same study in three countries: The USA, Argentina and Denmark. The pattern held in all three, although it was weakest in Denmark. I wonder if the lower income inequality in Denmark, and the social benefits of Danish social welfare programs have eroded the link between physical strength and convictions about redistribution?

Am I a robot?

This paper embodies the kind of evolutionary psychology that routinely gets people’s backs up. We often believe our convictions are reasoned, rational and reasonable. To be told that deeper motivations of which we are not even aware might sway our ideologies and beliefs can be awfully confronting.

The authors are not claiming that attitudes to economic redistribution are settled, hard-and-fast by some combination of socioeconomic status and bicep size. The value of this paper is in showing how our evolved biology and our contemporary politics can interlink in interesting ways, creating nuanced individual differences.

Readers of this column will be familiar with my obsessive interest in the links between biology and ideology. Particularly in the sphere of sex and reproduction, where insecurity over paternity, conflict between spouses and divergent attitudes regarding the regulation of fertility all generate deep political currents.

Readers will also know how I despise the idea that biological effects are “hard-wired” (a particularly dull computing metaphor for human behaviour) or immutable. The beauty of evolution, for me, is in the subtle play between biology and environment. Which is why I’m delighted that this simple (though logistically demanding) study has revealed yet another way in which evolved biology adds nuance to our understanding of political behaviour.

I am already thinking about how to measure the importance of the bicep-redistribution link relative to other influences on political attitudes. And about how to dissect the basis for the link?

Does going to gym reshape a man’s political outlook? Or do men more interested in asserting their self-interest politically tend also toward bicep-building exercise regimes?

And does one measure the bicep on the right or the left?

Arnie, the Republican

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s politics should never have surprised me. He may have played the fictional underdog Conan the Barbarian, but his speech at the 2008 Republican convention revealed that Arnie, since he first picked up a dumbbell in Graz, has been about the muscular, assertive kind of masculinity so beloved of Republicans and the right in general:

I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.” And I have been a Republican ever since.


P.S. About my Yoda complex

Those of us who study evolution and its relation to the human condition often note with a mix of amusement and concern for the future of humanity the ways in which the dankest backwaters of the internet distort our words.

Last week’s article on The Evolution of Lying caught the eye of “Creation Evolution Headlines” who managed to wrangle out of it the idea that the paper by Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson on which I was reporting somehow demonstrated that science and a rational world view constitute elaborate self-deception (shielding us from the blinding truth of fundamentalist literalism?).

They suggest McNally, Jackson and I all have “Yoda Complexes”. Interesting, because the Urban Dictionary indicates the Yoda Complex “is especially prevalent among political radicals, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and schizophrenics”.

I don’t normally draw attention to this kind of nutbaggery, but their article ‘Evolutionists Confess to Lying’ contains such Onionesque self parody that it makes great entertainment.

I also mention it because Jackson (now tweeting as @yodacomplex) tweeted me the link while I was finishing this column. And what should I discover at the bottom of the post? Another incisive takedown – in this case of the Psychological Science paper on politics and bicep size.

I think not this could be a coincidence. THE FORCE, must it be. Hmmmmmm.

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.

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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.

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