September 28, 2008

Either Conservatives Are Cowards Or Liberals Are...

I.

A news story, talked about ad nauseam, concerning a study in Science that no one will bother to read.

Subjects-- liberals and conservatives-- are shown random pictures of scary stuff (spider on a person's face) interspersed between photos of neutral stuff (bunnies.)   Conservatives exhibit much more fear (e.g. startle response, skin response) than liberals.

In case the political implications of this study are not obvious, these are the titles of the news reports about the study: 


Etc. The message is clear: conservatives get scared more easily than liberals.

Right?  That's what the titles say--  I'm not off base here, right?  There's no other possible way to interpret them?

II. 

The methodology is fine-- but the interpretation is so demonstrably flawed that they are actually interpreting the results backwards.

Here's the most important line of all-- found only in the SA article-- in the second to last paragraph, of course:

People who leaned more politically left didn't respond any differently to those [scary]  images than they did to pictures of a bowl of fruit, a rabbit or a happy child.

Really?  Spider on face vs. happy child?  No difference?

That extra bit of info doesn't even appear in the Science News story-- or anywhere else, for that matter.


skin conductance.jpg

The graph shows that liberals and conservatives have a trivial skin response to neutral pictures, and liberals show no difference in response when confronted with a scary photo.

So the actual finding isn't that conservatives are fearful; it's that liberals seem not to exhibit much response to scary photos.

III.


But it's actually a little worse than that.

The typical use for such tests of startle and fear aren't to see how scared people are, they are used specifically to find out how scared people aren't.  For example, they are used to evaluate psychopathy, and the results are the same as here-- psychopaths have decreased responses, compared to normal people, to aversive photos.

So which is it?  Are conservatives fearful, or are liberals psychopaths?

I'm not picking sides in the debate, but I am pointing out how this study missed the actual result-- liberals are less fearful than would be expected-- and then the study was publicized in the media with an entirely backwards inference, that conservatives scare easily.

But it sounds like science, conducted by scientists; it's published in Science, and then publicized in Scientific American.  It must be true.

(more)





What's the link?  Perhaps physiologic responses are genetic, and influence your future political persuasion; or your political persuasion/upbringing affects how you respond to threats.  Or, this insane idea:

Alternatively, political attitudes and varying physiological responses to threat may both derive from neural activity patterns, perhaps those surrounding the amygdala.

In other words, they're both genetic, and located in the pineal gland.  Sorry, I meant amygdala.

The idea is so empty, so vacuous, that it barely can be imagined, let alone written down in the pages of Science.  It is entirely analogous to this: brunettes are biologically programmed to want sex at certain times, and they seem to be located in the area surrounding Kansas. 

I should point out that while the journal is called Science, the authors of this paper are actually political scientists.  Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

You can blame the general news media for being lazy and/or retarded.  But the authors of the study are directly to blame for purposely skewing the results to the conclusion that conservatives are cowards.

"How so?" you ask.  "I read the article and it is very neutral, it even says you're not supposed to make that inference."

Wrong.  When you write something, you must be aware of how people will read it.  Since it is very obvious how this study will be taken, it is the authors' responsibility to prevent it from happening.  Notice that they did not, anywhere write the equally plausible possibility that liberals inexplicably exhibit much less fear than would be expected-- let alone that they score high on a measure of psychopathy.  There is nothing in the study that favors one interpretation over the other.  And to only focus on one, even if it is to say, "now, we're not saying conservatives are cowards," is leading.  Misleading.  On purpose.

---

I tried to find some of the pics this study used, this is one NPR had:

spider_200.jpg


What strikes me about the "fear content" of this photo is that it is not immediate.  Your eyes are drawn to her eyes and her mouth, and then later you see the spider that gives you the ugh feeling.  I wonder-- and I'd need to see the other photos-- if all of them do not require such a two step perception, and if that isn't the basis for the difference in fear responses.  (e.g. uncanny.)   Is it the "wrongness" of the pic-- spiders aren't supposed to be that big, or on someone's face?  Or is it the (seeming) powerlessness of it--all she can do is scream?  How would the reactions be different if the woman was smiling?





Comments

How do you define a "scary ... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 5:14 AM | Posted by Meh: | Reply

How do you define a "scary picture" and how does this relate to the already studied phenomenon that different people have different "startle reactions" to pictures of any kind?

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To me, this is just a conti... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 6:37 AM | Posted by The Country Shrink: | Reply

To me, this is just a continuation of politically-biased social science research, which has been going on for more than half of a century. It could have been interpreted in many different ways as you note. "We're not saying liberals are psychopaths." "Liberals show defective fear response." So on and so forth.

But research on memory shows that when people hear a statement like, "We're not saying conservatives are cowards," that what is remembered is "conservatives are cowards." The not part tends to be forgotten. The fact that they are "not" saying it, but yet felt compelled to say it, shows me that they want to say it.

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So which is it? Are con... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 8:03 AM | Posted by xon: | Reply

So which is it? Are conservatives fearful, or are liberals psychopaths?

Both, of course!!!

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Thanks for writing this. I'... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 8:10 AM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

Thanks for writing this. I'm an unapologetic and occasionally strident liberal, but the conclusions of this study seemed too supportive of caricatures to be accepted at face value.

Do you have any opinions on Alterman's "right wing authoritarian" stuff? I'm suspicious of that for the same reasons.

I'm also now curious as to how liberals' diminished response compares to the typical response of psychopaths, and whether anyone has examined psychopaths' political leanings.

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I suppose this is part of t... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 8:32 AM | Posted by nathaniel: | Reply

I suppose this is part of the reason that rigbt-wing politics is called "reactionary". Liberals, as we've come to use the term, are level headed and reasonable.

The definition of cowardice could be "scares easily". That is very demonstrably a facet of this experiment. The definition of "psychopathy" could be "chronic immoral and antisocial behavior." (thanks wikipedia). I don't see that as a part of this experiment.

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If we're going to trot out ... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 9:22 AM | Posted by Roughedge: | Reply

If we're going to trot out wikipedia as a source, "cowardice" could be "the characteristic of submitting to fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty, or intimidation."

"Bravery" could be "the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty, or intimidation."

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"I should point out that wh... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 9:31 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

"I should point out that while the journal is called Science, the authors of this paper are actually political scientists." --I detect this "science" error every now and then from physicians. You, sir, the last psychiatrist, are actually moving yourself toward being a scientist by valuing science, rather than authority (i.e., the drug rep) and experience (i.e., you saw some augmentation strategy work in one patient once therefore you believe it works in all cases), as the most reliable source of claims to knowledge. Most physicians believe that they are "scientists" because they are knowledgeable about, and work with the world of "natural science:" chemistry, physics, electricity, and so on. However, to call a physician a scientist for this reason is about the same as calling an auto repair technician a scientist: the car repair man also gets applied education, didactic and mentored experiential, in "natural science," but does not get training in study design, measurement, probability assessment, etc. "Natural science" is really kind of a misnomer, or at least needs to be understood as a single, descriptive term, not a label that indicates that anyone with knowledge of "natural science" is a "scientist." A scientist is someone who 1. is trained in the scientific method for pursuing knowledge and evaluating claims of knowledge through the principles of science (or, in other words, through the scientific method), 2. practices this. In a nutshell, science is what we learned in grade school: develop a theory (or, as I think of it: develop a "claim to knowledge"), determine how to measure the theory, go make measurements and determine how well the obtained data fit the theory (study design and probability evaluation AKA "statistics" comes in here), use skepticism to criticize your own theory in order to refine it (and share the info so others can do so, as well), refine the theory in order to improve the theory, and repeat. Physicians do not generally have training in this. Some "social scientists" do, and some don't. If they do, and they develop some theory, such as: conservatives are more fearful than liberals," and they develop some way to measure fearfulness, and then they measure fearfulness in a group of conservatives and a group of liberals, and they find a statstically and clinically meanigful difference, and share this bit of evidence in a scholarly setting, in order to share for the goals of 1. advancing knowledge as well as 2. inviting criticism (the hallmark of science as a method for discovering knowldge), then they are 100% scientists. Check out this article: Windish DM, Huot SJ, Green ML. Medicine residents' understanding of the biostatistics and results in the medical literature. JAMA. 2007 Sep 5;298(9):1010-22. PMID: 17785646. "CONCLUSIONS: Most residents in this study lacked the knowledge in biostatistics needed to interpret many of the results in published clinical research." Why not? Physicians are not trained as scientists, but as clinicians. So, it is time for us all to stop applying the term "scientist" to anyone who has an MD. The nature of the physician training is just different. Don't get me wrong: we just had a baby delivered. To know what to do, and to be prepared for all of the things that could go wrong, I definitely wanted a physician to handle the delivery. Also to handle the anesthesiology. And now, the pediatric needs. I don't want a PhD for any of those things. Sure, there are many "social scientists" who do not deserve the term. But if a person has been trained in the scientific method, and is conducting studies like this study, then this person is a scientist, whether the conclusions/interpretation of results are warranted or not (in this case, I agree that they are not warranted).

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Maybe the real answer is th... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 10:43 AM | Posted by Matt: | Reply

Maybe the real answer is that liberals can tell the difference between a picture and a real-life crisis. When my kids were about 8 and 10 we went to see Jurassic Park. During one of the scary scenes my daughter was cringing and hiding her eyes and my son (who is the younger) said, "It's just a movie.". I think this ability to differentiate between reality and simulation indicates a critical mind and that a lot of conservatism is based on leaning more toward feelings and "gut".

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You're talking about scienc... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 11:12 AM | Posted by m (2): | Reply

You're talking about science and using Wikipedia as a source? Boggle.

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QUOTE "I think this ability... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 12:09 PM | Posted by Chris: | Reply

QUOTE "I think this ability to differentiate between reality and simulation indicates a critical mind and that a lot of conservatism is based on leaning more toward feelings and "gut"."
-----------
Wait, what? You mean liberals are more reasoned and don't emote as much to opposing ideas than conservatives?

I don't have any evidence except to say that as a conservative that conclusion contradicts my experience. Speaking generally, of course. You'll get those crazy conservatives on right-wing blogs who react emotionally to everything just like the crazy liberals on left-wing blogs who react emotionally to everything.

I think the study just implies that liberals are more desensitized to scary images than conservatives, possibly because conservatives tend to have a moral aversion to such things (corrupting the mind, and all that) whereas the liberated liberal sees no problem in exposing himself to scary things that aren't real. I don't think that there are many (if any) political conclusions to be drawn.

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If anything, it suggests th... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 12:12 PM | Posted by Chris: | Reply

If anything, it suggests that liberals lack imagination. :)

There. I said it. A joke at the expense of half the country, but I thought it was funny.

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I'd read the article if I d... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 5:12 PM | Posted by Robert de Forest: | Reply

I'd read the article if I didn't have to pay for access. What I want to know is: how did they define Conservative and Liberal?

Also, the spider picture looks edited to me. It doesn't look like the woman actually has a spider on her face. The background has been edited out, the spider doesn't seem to cast correct shadows, and the scale looks wrong. I don't know if any of this is true but maybe the Liberals weren't convinced by the pictures, much as Matt suggested with his son saying Jurassic Park is just a movie.

And finally a response to "You're talking about science and using Wikipedia as a source? Boggle.": Wikipedia is a useful tool, get over it.

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Why would you say "liberals... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 8:50 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Why would you say "liberals inexplicably exhibit much less fear than would be expected"? What is "acceptable fear", in any case? And how do you measure "fear"? Maybe conservatives are much better at displaying their emotions while being studied and having electronic devices on them. Maybe the liberals have seen too many shock sites on the web to be startled by the silly woman with a spider on her head. Any interpretation is valid.

You, why are you so quick to condemn the scientists in this study for their bias. Have you ever examined your own? "They're psychopaths!" Really, the liberals in the study would fail that part of the test? Are psychopaths shown dumb pictures of women with a spider on her head? Come on.

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I looked at the picture and... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 9:01 PM | Posted by Xenophon Hendrix: | Reply

I looked at the picture and started feeling dismay about the screaming woman even before the spider completely registered. Could the measured physiologic responses have been caused by empathy?

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I'm not picking sides in... (Below threshold)

October 4, 2008 3:42 PM | Posted by Nathaniel: | Reply

I'm not picking sides in the debate, but I am pointing out how this study missed the actual result-- liberals are less fearful than would be expected-- and then the study was publicized in the media with an entirely backwards inference, that conservatives scare easily.

Except you clearly ARE "picking sides" in the debate. There is no evidence in the study, or presented by you, as to what level of fear is "expected", so it's completely inaccurate to say anything about the results other than that conservatives displayed a higher fear response than liberals to these specific images (or conversely, liberals displayed a lower fear response than conservatives).

Indeed, you are the one guilty of everything you're complaining about -- interjecting your personal view of what "should" be a typical fear response to these images, and of writing while seemingly not paying attention to the meaning of the words.

If you have a study showing what the average fear response is, or demonstrating that liberals have a fear response equivalent to the fear response of a psychopath, while conservatives have a fear response equivalent to a mentally sound/moderate/unaligned voter, then you might actually have a valid point in this rant.

The people who performed this study seem to have followed and understood the scientific process a lot more properly than you propose. You're simply complaining that they didn't report the data to accommodate your own personal bias, even though you've offered no data whatsoever to indicate it should be interpreted or reported that way.

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Smacked down by Nathaniel. ... (Below threshold)

October 4, 2008 8:20 PM | Posted by thisgirl: | Reply

Smacked down by Nathaniel.

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"How would the reactions be... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2008 4:41 PM | Posted by Diego: | Reply

"How would the reactions be different if the woman was smiling?"

This is the part I'm actually interested in.

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I'm with Nathaniel on this ... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 9:32 AM | Posted by Becca: | Reply

I'm with Nathaniel on this one. The least unbiased post I've read yet on this blog.

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Alone's reponse: Did I l... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 6:21 PM | Posted, in reply to Nathaniel's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Alone's reponse: Did I log into Atrios? You're puting words in my mouth. When I say the "real result was" I'm not saying that _is_ the real result-- I'm not saying that "liberals exhibit no fear." I'm saying that both conclusions (liberals are psychopaths or conservatives are more fearful) are equally idiotic, equally unsupported by the very study that purports to support it. However, for some reason, all of the media outlets CHOSE only the "conservatives are fearful" angle.

Again, neither one is true; but rather than both untrue conclusions being broadcast over the internet and radio, only one was.

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You lost me on "retarded."<... (Below threshold)

November 20, 2010 11:55 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You lost me on "retarded."

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When I think of "liberal" p... (Below threshold)

January 2, 2012 11:26 AM | Posted by Jay: | Reply

When I think of "liberal" policy prescriptions, I get:

* support for socialized health care
* desire to roll back military spending and military adventurism
* concern for the environment
* distrust of political and religious authority, leading to an emphasis on due process to constrain authority
* a relatively high level of concern for the poor, the sick, the accused, and the imprisoned

I really don't see how a sociopath would be drawn to this ideology at all.

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Just so I have this straigh... (Below threshold)

May 20, 2015 2:00 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Just so I have this straight...

Conservative Psychologists designed a test for "crazy" based on how upset people were by specific images. They deemed "healthy" those who behaved most like four-year-old children.

Desensitizing, which has everything in common with 'getting used to the water temperature', is a learning process. We show officers in training photos of terrible things specifically so that they can handle it when they meet up with these situations in real life. When I read that certain people who are not shaken by "scary pictures" are labeled insane by certain other people, I can only think of the teenager "frightening" their simple-living grandparents with quotes from Nietzsche.

What about the more interesting implication that morality is considered apart from psychopathy? Or that the preferred state of nominal citizens is "easily shaken"? Or that, in fact, the bulk of Conservatives are THEREFORE normal?

The reason no one ever asks "Why are -you- a liberal?" is because ____.

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I guess some participants w... (Below threshold)

May 20, 2015 4:29 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

I guess some participants were desensitized to the "wrong" things. And I guess some could be found to be "too sensitive" to other things.

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