September 28, 2008

Either Conservatives Are Cowards Or Liberals Are...


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?


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.


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.


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:


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?