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Politics in the body?

Do you strongly support the war in Iraq and strict immigration policies? If so, you're more likely to have strong physiological responses to threatening stimuli such as loud noises and disturbing images, according to a study published in Science this week. Using tests of skin conductance in response to different types of images and startle response to loud sounds, researchers found that people with higher physical sensitivity to threatening stimuli are more likely to favor political policies t

By | September 18, 2008

Do you strongly support the war in Iraq and strict immigration policies? If so, you're more likely to have strong physiological responses to threatening stimuli such as loud noises and disturbing images, according to a study published in Science this week. Using tests of skin conductance in response to different types of images and startle response to loud sounds, researchers found that people with higher physical sensitivity to threatening stimuli are more likely to favor political policies that involve protecting the country from internal or external threats. "I think this is the seminal study, the first of many, where political scientists will think about physiology in the study of political views," said linkurl:James Fowler,;http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu/ a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the genetic basis of political behavior. "This is first empirical data to associate physiological response to environmental threat and political attitudes," said linkurl:Kevin Smith,;http://polisci.unl.edu/dept/smith/smith_cv.html a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and coauthor of the study. While political ideologies have long been assumed to be the product of experience, linkurl:recent studies;http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v10/n10/abs/nn1979.html have suggested that an individual's political viewpoints and the propensity to act on them may be linkurl:heritable.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/38016/ For example, in May, Fowler published findings showing that people with one variant of the gene MAOA, which helps regulate breakdown of certain neurotransmitters, were more likely to vote than those with a different variant. Smith and his colleagues decided to search for other biological measures that could influence political behavior. The group chose to focus on physiological tests because physiological reactions to threats are known to have behavioral attitude effects, Smith explained.The work is a first step in "filling in the black box" between genes and political attitudes, he added. In the study, Smith and his colleagues measured changes in linkurl:skin conductance;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/19567/upon viewing threatening and non-threatening images and blink response to startling sounds in 46 adult subjects. These two measures are frequently used to gauge emotional response, such as arousal, attention and fear, to a stimulus. The team used a survey of 18 hot-button policies meant to represent "protective policies" to measure how strongly subjects supported protecting the US from internal and external threat. Although the questions were taken from a well-known conservative attitude test, touching on topics such as military spending, the Iraq War, immigration, warrantless searches, school prayer, abortion and gay marriage, Smith said the study was not aimed at indexing conservatism versus liberalism but rather issues "indicative of threat." The participants then observed a series of 33 images, including three threatening images -- "a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it" -- and three non-threatening images -- "a bunny, a bowl of fruit, and a happy child" -- according to the paper. Researchers recorded the change in skin conductance levels when viewing non-threatening and threatening images from levels when no image was present. Blink response to loud sounds was measured separately. Participants who supported protective policies demonstrated a higher change in skin conductance when viewing threatening images -- a difference that was statistically significant -- and a trend towards harder blinks than those less in favor of protective policies.These differences remained after the researchers controlled for age, gender, education and income level. linkurl:Evan Charney,;http://fds.duke.edu/db/aas/PoliticalScience/charney a political scientist at Duke University, was not convinced by the results, arguing that the way Smith and his colleagues chose images to use as "threatening stimuli" was problematic. "Are all of these images really threatening, and is it not possible, or probable, that persons would have a range of intense emotional responses -- disgust, anxiety, even concern -- which would manifest themselves in the same way [when measuring skin conductance]?" he wrote in an E-mail to The Scientist. The researchers conducted initial testing on a group of pilot subjects to choose the images, Smith said, but he conceded that they had employed no formal measure at the end of the skin conductance test to assess whether or not subjects perceived the images to be threatening. He also noted other limitations in the study, such as its small sample size comprised of predominately white, politically active people, and said the group plans to address them in future studies. "We're trying to bend over backwards not to oversell what we've found," Smith said. "Clearly more work needs to be done here ... We want to be some of the people doing it." "We're not claiming we've found the definitive causal connection. We're claiming there's a correlation that fits into biology playing a role in political attitudes," Smith said. "The take away point here is there are differences, and among those whose differences are deeply held, there appears to be a biological basis."
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September 20, 2008

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