Skin Conductance and Political Affiliation

Ed Yong has an
up at
Not Exactly Rocket Science
about a researcher who found a correlation between involuntary startle
responses and support for various political/social programs:

When we’re suddenly confronted with a shocking image, our skin becomes moist and we blink strongly. These actions are automatic and unintentional; they happen without conscious thought. So it may come as a surprise that they can also predict some of our most seemingly considered beliefs – our political attitudes.

According to a new American study, the stronger these responses, the more likely people are to support the Iraq War, Biblical truth, the Patriot Act and greater defence budgets. Conversely, people who show weaker “startle reflexes” are more likely to support foreign aid, immigration, gay marriage and abortion rights.

He calls the connection surprising, but I’m not so sure.

Presumably the startle responses measure, in some sense, how startled
or afraid people are of various things: a person whose skin
conductance jumps by 0.001% when she sees a picture of a spider is,
presumably, more afraid of spiders than soemone whose skin conductance
only jumps 0.0001%. Of course, this need not be the case: it’s
possible that both feel equally afraid, but the first person just has
a stronger measurable reaction. But let’s go wit it for now.

Now, involuntary physiological responses do affect what we
think of as our rational decisions. For instance, if I get a pheromone
rush of size x from eating a jalape�o, and you have to drink a
whole bottle of Tabasco to get the same rush, you’re a lot more likely
to eat Thai food than I am. If I get an adrenaline surge from blowing
through a yellow traffic light or giving a successful presentation at
work, I’m not likely to go bungee-jumping or skydiving.

So it’s natural to conclude that our political stances are affected by
what scares us, and by how much. Someone with a fear of dogs would be
more likely to support a mandatory leash law than someone who isn’t
afraid of dogs.

Likewise, given a lot of right-wing rhetoric about the Patriot Act,
the war in Iraq, immigration — to say nothing about the 2004 and
2006 elections — it sounds as if a lot of people are afraid of
the big scary world. I’ve seen more than one weblog post that seemed
to say “How dare you not cower under the bed with us?!”.

So naturally someone who finds foreigners frightening is likely to
vote for tougher immigration, and someone who finds guns scary is
likely to support tighter gun control.

It’s tempting to think that since skin conductance and blinking are
physiological responses, that the difference between people in the
experiment is genetic. But that’s unlikely to be the case.

If you look at a county-by-county map of the last few US elections,
you can pretty much predict how an area voted by how densely populated
it is. Unless all the scared-of-buttsecks people decided to move to
the country and all the scared-of-guns people moved to the city, it’s
likely that the difference has a lot more to do with environment.

In a small, homogenous town, the lone gay couple or Pakistani family
or vegan might stand out, and people have the luxury of regarding them
with a certain amount of trepidation. A violent murder might be talked
about for months. But people in Los Angeles or New York or DC don’t
really have that option: if you freak out every time you see something
that goes against your upbringing, you can either get used to it (i.e.
not freak out unless it’s particularly freaky), or turn into Bill
Donohue, Professional Offendee.

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