Are conservatives more afraid of threats than liberals? Political psychologists have long found evidence that people on the right are more sensitive to scary stuff, on average, than people on the left, a basic psychological difference thought to drive some political disagreements between the two groups.
But new research suggests that's overly simplistic.
In a new international study, conservatives and liberals both responded to threats — but they responded more strongly to different kinds of threats. And to make matters more complex, those responses don't always map nicely onto the political divide, or stay consistent from nation to nation.
"This link between threat and conservative beliefs, or conservative ideology, is just not simple," said study leader Mark Brandt, a psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. "It depends on a lot of different things. It depends on the type of threats that we study; it depends on how we measure political beliefs and what kind of political beliefs that we measure; and it depends on the precise country that we're looking at."
Taking a global view
Let's rewind to 2012, well before the 2016 election and the dramatic political fallout that's happened since. That year, psychologists reported that conservatives responded more strongly to scary images than liberals did on a basic biological level: They literally started sweating more. This tracked with earlier research suggesting that conservatives were more prone to disgust, on average, than liberals. Multiple studies reached similar conclusions.
It made for a neat story. People physiologically prone to fear and disgust would pay more attention to threats and thus turn to a conservative political ideology that promises safety and the status quo. But there was a lingering problem. Seventy-five percent of the research cited on the topic in one influential 2003 meta-analysis was done in the United States, and only 4% was conducted outside of Western democracies. Another problem? The definition of "threat" in most studies on the topic was usually narrow, focused on threats of violence or terrorism. Political persuasion was often defined narrowly too, without accounting for differences between social ideology and economic ideology.
"Many of the studies cited in support of this conclusion use threat measures or manipulations that exclusively tap threats emphasized by conservative elites," said Ariel Malka, a political psychologist at Yeshiva University who was not involved in the new study, referring to politicians and media figures.
This is a problem because the link between threats and politics can run both ways. For example, a recent POLITICO poll found that 70% of Republicans thought the 2020 election was marred by fraud, compared with only 10% of Democrats. Before the election, only 35% of Republicans thought the election would be fraudulent, and 52% of Democrats did. The post-election shift makes it pretty clear that people's fears of fraud are driven by party affiliation and messaging from party elites, not the other way around. If studies on threats focus on fears usually emphasized by conservatives, they're likely to find a connection between threat and conservatism.
Brandt and his colleagues wanted to broaden the scope. They turned to a dataset called the World Values Survey, which asked people from 56 different countries and territories about their perceptions of six different categories of threats, including war, violence, police violence, economics, poverty and government surveillance. Economic threats were broad-based worries about the job market and availability of education; poverty threats were more personal concerns about being able to put food on the table or pay for medical care. The survey also captured people's political beliefs in nuanced ways, ranging from whether they called themselves conservative or liberal to their individual opinions on immigration, government ownership of industry and abortion. Data on 60,378 participants was collected between 2010 and 2014.
Not so simple
The results were messy.
Economic fears were slightly associated with some left-wing beliefs, but not all. For example, a fear of personal poverty was linked with more acceptance of government ownership of industry, but fears about the wider economy weren't. The fear of war or terrorism was sometimes associated with right-wing beliefs, but reporting worries about violence within one's neighborhood was associated with left-wing beliefs, as was fear of police violence.
And there were many unexpected findings. The threat of war or terrorism was linked to left-wing beliefs on government ownership, for example, and economic worries were linked to left-wing beliefs on social issues. The threat of personal poverty was associated with right-wing views on social issues and on protectionist job policies that would reserve the highest-paid jobs for men and non-immigrants. What was clear was that threats and right-wing beliefs weren't married. There were six statistically significant associations between certain threats and conservative beliefs, nine associations between other threats and liberal beliefs, and 15 potential relationships between threat and belief that didn't turn out to correlate at all.
Making matters more complicated, the relationships between ideology and threats weren't consistent from nation to nation. For example a fear of war or terrorism was associated with left-wing beliefs in Kazakhstan just as strongly as a fear of war or terrorism was associated with right-wing beliefs in the United States. Likewise, Brandt told Live Science, experiencing the threat of poverty leads to left-wing beliefs in the U.S., but in Pakistan and Egypt, the threat of poverty is linked to right-wing belief.
If you look only at the United States, the researchers report, it's true that right-wing beliefs and a fear of war or terrorism go hand-in-hand. But expanding to other threats shows an inconsistent mix of associations. In other words, even in the U.S., conservatism and a physical sensitivity to threats aren't clearly linked.
It's not clear from the study which comes first, the political belief or the focus on a threat. It's possible that experiencing a particular threat moves people to adopt a certain political belief, but it's also possible, as with voter fraud in the 2020 election, that people adopt a political identity first and focus on specific threats as a result.
The new work is likely to be influential, said Bert Bakker, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam who studies the relationship of personality and political ideology. Bakker was not involved in the current study, but his work has shown that the difference in disgust between conservatives and liberals may also be overstated.
"I am less certain about what we know about this now than I was a couple years ago," Bakker told Live Science.
It's still possible that people gravitate toward political beliefs for deep-seated psychological reasons, Brandt said.
"It's definitely plausible that people experience some threat or some event and then adopt this attitude," he said. "But what 'this attitude' is and the best one to address that threat might be different depending on the particular context."
There may also be other psychological reasons to associate with a political group, Malka noted. People have a social need to fit in, and may adopt attitudes that help them do so. Future research should focus more on how pre-existing political affiliation leads people to focus on different threats, he told Live Science.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.