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Conservatives are Born Liberals are Made

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

In the early 2000’s some sociologist approached some neuro imaging specialists with a bit of evidence saying they have reason to believe that disgust and visceral reactions are a strong indicator of political affiliation. At first the imaging specialist laughed it off, later agreeing to the study when presented with more evidence of their hypothesis. An FMRI was accomplished while patients were being shown pictures meant to arouse a few things including disgust. The differences in which parts of the brain lit up was so obvious between liberals and conservatives only using the FMRI images the researcher was able to predict who was conservative or liberal with 95% accuracy!! VERY little in science of especially brains scores that high in predictability.

A few more tid-bits. Turns out if you put people of similar ideology in a room with sticky dirty desks or smelly trash and ask them about things ranging form returning a found wallet, gay rights and resorting to cannibalism after a plane crash and across the board everyone gets more conservative than if you ask those same questions in a clean odorless room.

What in the world explains this cool but admittedly bizarre behavior? The theory is that disgust evolved as a security measure to prevent organisms from ingesting bad food. That makes sense. Its an impulse or reaction meant to interrupt behavior that might be unsafe. Which means it would have to be a strong reaction in order to get our attention. In our modern world this can get hairy.

In 2009 a study was done on 25,000 Americans. They evaluated a demographically and geographically diverse pod and found that people self-reporting the highest levels of germ and contagion fear voted for John McCain the conservative nominee.

By now there has been a meta-analysis that confirms this correlation in 121 countries. That’s 121 different cultures with their own definitions of conservatism and liberal. We have known how to turn a liberal into a conservative for a long time. All you have to do is scare them, or put them in a room with something stinky. But that’s only half the battle of understanding the phenomenon. How can we reverse that trend how can turn a conservative into a liberal? You make them invincible.

When prompted before testing the participants were told to imagine they are basically superman ie. gunshots bounce off and great falls couldn’t hurt them. All conservatives began to lean left on social issues but not fiscal. This implies that if you make people feel “safe” they become more socially liberal. All the fear mongering in politics now makes even more sense huh?

An amazing summary in a review article of the subject stated “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty to avoid change, disruption and ambiguity; And to explain order and justify inequality among groups or individuals.”

Essentially conservatives are well... conservative. That is to say they’re more concerned with taking few risks in order to keep what has already been accomplished. It is more along the lines of evolutions thinking. We have spent a very long time as a species doing well by not wasting ie conserving energy. Conservatives think a lot more like nature does and as our biology does. For the longest time all we had to go on for judging things was our somatic markers the visceral feelings of disgust or the like.

Now we have new ways. One awesome one is called science. We also have this new part of our brain called the frontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that has allowed us to separate ourselves so obviously from out nearest primate relatives by thinking critically. THE PFC is involved in executive function. The real nitty gritty thinking part. If we ever need to re appraise something this is the guy for the job.

What happens when a guy from work brings in his food and it smells crazy. The pungent spices and the fermented vegetables have a sour bitter smell that you associate with vomit. Your disgust was triggered but you can’t really act on it.

Months go buy and you get put into the same department as pungent fermented food guy and are forced to work together. The two of you get along he’s a hard worker with a good attitude and great sense of humor if a little smelly. Over time the visceral disgust you felt on day one of smelling his lunch is long gone. You still don’t love the smell but now it just represents “that guy”

Suddenly a new profile of sensory experience is definable to you instead of being disgusting. The smell hasn’t changed but your reaction to is has. Repeated exposure to the disgusting smell conditioned your brain to interpret that smell as food and no longer a threat. The threat being possible sickness if you ate the disgusting thing. The behind-the-scenes autonomic assumptions are easy to identify here. If that guy is eating something that makes me want to puke and its not making him sick there must be something sick about him. This is exactly how we feel about vultures and maggots. They eat dirty things therefore are dirty. In this context it seems totally reasonable to extend that logic. But is it still when youre talking about other humans?

This explains why there is such a concentration of liberals in cities as opposed to rural places and why colleges and universities have among the highest levels of liberalism as well. In these settings the multi-cultural inter-disciplinary environment demands constant reappraisal of ones preconceived notions. Our inherited gut instincts got us so far. That decision making helped us populate the entire planet and building a global civilization.

But at some point, unless global population dramatically decreases its trajectory, we will all be forced to be liberals soon. We can’t afford to let fear based biological reactions to control our decision making. We are going to have to learn to observe our reactions to things and then ask ourselves whether the wisdom in such somatic markers is a present threat to danger or just a perceived one based on outdated information.

You can make a liberal more conservative by scaring or threatening him and make a conservative more liberal by convincing her she is safe. This is safety v scarcity mindset. Scarcity in an environment demands little risk taking. Security in an environment fosters growth an inclusivity. In Rural America life is and has always been tough. Folks are nicer to kin and meaner to outsiders because they have limited resources. In liberal cities resources have been pooled and one experiences a huge buffer of safety. There are more people, grocery, stores restaurants and city-wide programs to help those in need.

Our biology for all of history has operated in a functional scarcity environment. There simply wasn’t meat waiting in plastic wrap somewhere for our convenient consumption. Resources were hard to get and harder to maintain. Conservatives act more in line with the biological directives they inherited and less from the prefrontal cortex’s rational side. That’s not to say conservatives are not rational. Their internal logic is sound. It’s an assumption that the physical feeling of disgust is a good enough marker to cast judgment that is the problem with their thinking. No more reasoning need be applied once something is labeled as disgusting.

There will always be a need for the stability encouraged by conservative thinkers. But the us them dichotomy wrapped up in somatic markers will continue to mislead us for a while in a over populated world. We need time and exposure to disgusting things in order to not be disgusted by them. Then we can learn reappraisal skills that encourage a more socially accepting culture.

So what is it that makes a liberal? The learned skill of reappraising ones own emotional and visceral reactions. Learn to think twice, over and over and over again and congratulations you’ve become a liberal.

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