Headline and Excerpt:
Conservative Men Are Obsessed With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Science Tells Us Why. Laura Bassett/Huffington Post January 11, 2019
“Bobby Azarian, a neuroscientist whose expertise in anxiety has led him to examine political behaviors. His research has found that the brains of conservative people are likely to display the same attention biases as the brains of people with anxiety. … Ocasio-Cortez’s power is a direct threat to conservatives because her very existence in Congress as a young, Latina, working-class woman threatens to upend the social order that has kept white men in the ruling class for centuries.”
Apparently Bobby Azarian is a proxy for “Science”. Note, however, that Azarian has not done research on the brains of conservatives - per his CV and my own literature search. His academic papers are mostly about attentional biases related to anxiety. However, Azarian did write an article in Psychology Today called Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives' Political Attitudes, which references other researchers’ work. In this piece, Azarian makes four claims:
“Conservatives tend to focus on the negative”
“Conservatives have a stronger physiological response to threat”
“Conservatives fear new experiences”
“Conservatives’ brains are more reactive to fear”
Azarian supports each claim with evidence from a single scientific study. Luckily I was able to locate most of the original studies to see if his conclusions were reasonable. Here’s what I found:
1. “Conservatives tend to focus on the negative”
The Study: "The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences." (Dodd, Blazer et al, 2012)
Findings: Right-of-center participants had stronger physical reactions and paid more attention to aversive stimuli [e.g., spider on man’s face] than left-of-center participants.
“It appears individuals on the political right are not so much ‘fearful’ and ‘vulnerable’ as attuned and attentive to the aversive in life.” p. 646
“Our physiological study was weighted towards participants with strong political beliefs and therefore the results do not reflect the large percentage of individuals who probably are not physio-cognitively predisposed towards any political orientation.” p. 647
2. “Conservatives have a stronger physiological response to threat”
The Study: "Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits." (Oxley, Smith et al, 2008)
Findings: Skin conductance response was stronger in “low supporters of socially protective policies” than in high supporters. Differences in blink amplitude in response to noises was not statistically significant. Note that there were just 46 participants in this study.
“Our data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes but do not permit firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes at work.” p. 1670
3. “Conservatives fear new experiences”
The Study: Actually, the link in Azarian’s piece was to the same study as above ("Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits.") but he clearly wasn’t thinking of that particular study. I don’t know what study he meant to cite.
Findings: Azarian says the study catalogued items in bedrooms and found that liberals owned more travel books and conservatives owned more calendars and cleaning supplies.
Quote from Azarian :
“This tells us that liberals more often seek adventure and novel experiences. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to prefer a more ordered, disciplined lifestyle. This could help explain why they are so resistant to change and progressive policies.”
4. “Conservatives’ brains are more reactive to fear”
The Study: "Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults."
Finding:: The right amygdala was larger in conservatives than liberals. The amygdala is responsible for detecting and responding to threats. There were 90 study participants. It’s not clear how many were self-rated as “conservative”.
“…our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes…”.
My Bottom Line: None of the research Azarian cited justifies the title of his article,” Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives' Political Attitudes”. For the most part, the studies were small and their authors did not draw strong conclusions. As for conservative college students having a “more ordered, disciplined lifestyle”, how is that connected with fear? According to decades of personality research covering many thousands of participants, self-discipline and order are facets of the personality trait “conscientiousness” and are not associated with anxiety or fear.
Next: Speaking of personality research and political views….
Dodd, M. D., A. Balzer, et al. (2012). "The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367(1589): 640-649. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0268
Gerber, A. S., G. A. Huber, et al. (2011). "The Big Five Personality Traits in the Political Arena." Annual Review of Political Science 14(1): 265-287. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051010-111659
Kanai, R., T. Feilden, et al. (2011). "Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults." Current Biology 21(8): 677-680. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017
Oxley, D. R., K. B. Smith, et al. (2008). "Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits." Science 321(5896): 1667-1670. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/poliscifacpub/26