Monday, April 07, 2014

Amazing! Scientists find that conservatives are more cautious

The findings below can all be summarized as showing conservatives to be more cautious, which is hardly news.   But there is a bit more to it than that.  It shows that conservative  caution is inbuilt  -- in that conservatives show quicker and stronger responses to things that require caution

Thomas Jefferson was a smart dude. And in one of his letters to John Adams, dated June 27, 1813, Jefferson made an observation about the nature of politics that science is only now, two centuries later, beginning to confirm. "The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time," wrote Jefferson. "The terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history," he later added. "They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals."

Tories were the British conservatives of Jefferson's day, and Whigs were the British liberals. What Jefferson was saying, then, was that whether you call yourself a Whig or a Tory has as much to do with your psychology or disposition as it has to do with your ideas. At the same time, Jefferson was also suggesting that there's something pretty fundamental and basic about Whigs (liberals) and Tories (conservatives), such that the two basic political factions seem to appear again and again in the world, and have for "all time."

Jefferson didn't have access to today's scientific machinery—eye tracker devices, skin conductance sensors, and so on. Yet these very technologies are now being used to reaffirm his insight. At the center of the research are many scholars working at the intersection of psychology, biology, and politics, but one leader in the field is John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose "Political Physiology Laboratory" has been producing some pretty stunning results.

"We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things," Hibbing explains on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above). "It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently."

This is not fringe science: One of Hibbing's pioneering papers on the physiology of ideology was published in none other than the top-tier journal Science in 2008. It found that political partisans on the left and the right differ significantly in their bodily responses to threatening stimuli. For example, startle reflexes after hearing a loud noise were stronger in conservatives. And after being shown a variety of 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," according to the study), conservatives also exhibited greater skin conductance—a moistening of the sweat glands that indicates arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body's fight-or-flight response.

It all adds up, according to Hibbing, to what he calls a "negativity bias" on the right. Conservatives, Hibbing's research suggests, go through the world more attentive to negative, threatening, and disgusting stimuli—and then they adopt tough, defensive, and aversive ideologies to match that perceived reality.

In a 2012 study, Hibbing and his colleagues showed as much through the use of eye-tracking devices like the one shown above. Liberals and conservatives were fitted with devices that tracked their gaze, and were shown a series of four-image collages containing pictures that were either "appetitive" (e.g., something happy or positive) or "aversive" (showing something threatening, scary, or disgusting). The eye-tracking device allowed the researchers to measure where the research subjects first fixed their gaze, how long it took them to do so, and then how long they tended to dwell on different images.

Here's an example of an aversive, disgust-evoking image, one that just happens to also feature Hibbing himself. He says worms are actually "quite tasty." (This picture wasn't actually used in the study, but a very similar one was.)

And you can see an example of a four-image collage used in the study here. One of the images is adorable, the rest are varying degrees of disgusting and aversive. Which image does your eye go to first, and how long did you focus on it?

The results of Hibbing's study were clear: The conservatives tended to focus their eyes much more rapidly on the negative or aversive images, and also to dwell on them for a lot longer. The authors therefore concluded that based on results like these, "those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently."

"Maybe you've had this experience, watching a political debate with somebody who disagrees with you," says Hibbing. "And you discuss it afterwards. And it's like, 'Did we watch the same debate?' And in some respects, you didn't. And I think that's what this research indicates."

One of the biggest differences clearly involves the emotion of disgust. Hibbing isn't the only one to have found a relationship between conservatism and stronger disgust sensitivity—this result is also a mainstay of the very influential research of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies how deep-seated moral emotions divide the left and the right (see here). In one study, Hibbing and his colleagues showed that a higher level of disgust sensitivity is predictive not only of political conservatism but also disapproval of gay marriage. It is important to underscore that your disgust sensitivity is involuntary; it is not something under your control. It is a primal, gut emotion.

That word, "primal," helps us begin to understand what Hibbing and his colleagues now think ideology actually is. They think that humans have core preferences for how societies ought to be structured: Some of us are more hierarchical, as opposed to egalitarian; some of us prefer harsher punishments for rule breakers, whereas some of us would be more inclined to forgive; some of us find outsiders or out-groups intriguing and enticing, whereas others find them threatening. Hibbing and his team have even found that preferences on such matters appear to have a genetic basis.

Thus, the idea seems to be that our physiology, who we are in our bodies, may lead us to experience the world in such a way that basic preferences about how to run society emerge naturally from more basic dispositions and habits of perception. So, if you have a negativity bias, and you focus more on the aversive and disgusting, then the world seems more threatening to you. And thus, policies like supporting a stronger military, or being tougher on immigration, might feel very natural.

And when you combine Hibbing's research on the physiology of ideology with waves of other studies showing that liberals and conservatives appear to differ when it comes to genetics, hormones, moral emotions, personalities, and even brain structures, the case for politics being tied to biology seems pretty strong indeed.

So how do we then live with the other side—with those who disagree with us, for reasons over which they may not have full control? Hibbing believes that understanding that you don't fully control your political orientation, any more than you do your sexual orientation or your left-hand/right-hand orientation, promotes political tolerance. "My dad was left-handed," says Hibbing, "and he got beat on the hand with a ruler when he was a kid." Nowadays, Hibbing continues, that would never happen—we've grown much more tolerant because we recognize that left-handed is just the way some people are.

So maybe the same can happen for politics. "We have this silly and naive hope, maybe it's more than that," says Hibbing, "that if we could get people to see politics in the same light [as left-handedness], then maybe we would be a little bit more tolerant, and there will be a greater opportunity for compromise."



France shows what not to do

Tax-and-spend politics has driven Paris to the brink

While commentators remain captivated by the bleak saga of such Eurozone basket cases as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, another European Union member is quietly slipping into economic despair. After years of fiscal mismanagement, France is in a bad, bad place.

France spends more of its GDP on government-57 percent-than any other country in the Eurozone. The country's unemployment rate is at a 16-year high of 11 percent, and a startling number of richer and younger French people are leaving for more hospitable economic environments abroad.

It has gotten so bad that France's crisis-wracked neighbors might be catching up: A November 2013 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report warned that Paris is "falling behind southern European countries that have cut labor costs and become leaner and meaner."

The data is even more striking when compared to Germany. With an unemployment rate of 5 percent and a private savings rate of 12.1 percent, Germany has been growing at 1 percent annually while France sputters along at 0 percent.

It is tempting to blame this on the 2007 recession, but the reality is that France hasn't been doing well in years. Since the creation of the Eurozone in 1999, France has only managed a 0.8 percent annual growth rate. Germany, by contrast, has grown three times faster over those 15 years.

Across all available indexes of national economic freedom, France scores very poorly for a developed nation. The 2013 Economic Freedom of the World Index, published by the Fraser Institute and Cato Institute, aggregates and weighs national data on five broad categories-size of government, rule of law and property rights protection, sound money, freedom of international trade, and regulation. How does France rank? An unimpressive 40th, down from 25th in 1980.

This effect is echoed in a similar but more qualitative survey from The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. Their Index of Economic Freedom for 2013 ranks France 62nd in the world, right between Thailand and Rwanda. And the trendlines in both studies are similar: The country's good or average scores in the areas of rule of law, regulation, and free trade are dragged down by bloated government and high taxes. Economic freedom is a good indicator of prosperity, and France's is sorely lacking.

Unfortunately, the French government's response to anemic growth and higher unemployment has been to tack toward less economic freedom, not more. Loyal to his promises on the campaign trail, President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party has refused to trim France's social-welfare spending-the highest of all developed economies-and has chosen instead to chip away at the country's huge deficit by raising taxes.

Hollande's more right-wing predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was only slightly better on taxes. In fact, data compiled by tax-watchdog groups and the media in 2012 show that during Sarkozy's rule, from 2007 to 2012, taxpayers were subjected to 205 separate increases, including excise taxes on televisions, tobacco, and diet sodas, multiple increases in capital taxation, and a wealth-tax hike. Sarkozy is also responsible for increasing the top marginal income tax rate from 40 to 41 percent in 2010, and again to 45 percent in 2012.

Analyzing data from the Ministry of Finance since 2009, the center-left newspaper Le Monde published a special report in September 2013 showing that 84 new taxes have been instated under both presidents. The article also noted that Sarkozy increased tax revenue by €16.2 billion in 2011 and €11.7 billion in 2012, while Hollande added another €7.6 billion shortly after his election and planned to raise an additional €20 billion in 2013. That's €55.5 billion in new tax revenue in four years, with more than half of the total collected from businesses.

France's tax haul stands at more than 45 percent of GDP-one of the highest in the Eurozone. Sarkozy did implement some small but beneficial pension reforms, which Hollande promptly overturned and replaced with a measly and insufficient increase in the pension contribution period. Not only is the new president unconcerned with the sustainability of the French pension system, but he refuses to follow the example of Europe's periphery by liberalizing French labor and product markets.

Hollande's commitment to big government hasn't won him any friends. The French rank him as the least popular president of the Fifth Republic, and young people are voting with their feet. According to the data from French consulates in London and Edinburgh, the number of French people living in London is probably somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. That's more than the number of French people living in Bordeaux, Nantes, or Strasbourg.

In a stunning display of hubris, Hollande responded to this tax flight not by implementing beneficial reforms but by beefing up the exit tax that Sarkozy created in 2012. Sarkozy's penalty taxes capital gains at the rate of 19 percent, plus a 15.5 percent payroll-tax-like penalty, payable when exiles sell their assets any time within eight years after leaving the country. Under Hollande, that period is now being expanded up to 15 years.

For cockeyed optimists, there are still slivers of hope. During his New Year address, Hollande turned into a rhetorical supply-sider, making the case for cutting taxes and public spending, improving competitiveness, and creating a more investor-friendly climate. He also promised French businesses a "responsibility pact" to cut labor-force restrictions and thus promote increased hiring.

While free market economists don't believe a word of this, it is worth noting that France has reformed successfully before. Both the 1980s and the '90s saw large waves of privatization, marginal tax cuts, and slighter spending increases. To secure robust prosperity for new French generations, leaders should extend the lessons of these brief shining moments by seriously tackling government spending and reining in destructive tax rates.

Is it possible? Maybe. Many of the countries that have managed to engage in true reforms were led by left-leaning parties at the time. In Canada, the Liberal Party reduced the debt-to-GDP ratio from 67 percent to 29 percent in a few years by cutting spending in absolute terms and engaging in serious structural reforms. And while it's not exactly the same, President Bill Clinton kept the size of government in check in a way Republicans didn't when they were in control. He signed welfare reform, too.

If we're lucky, Hollande will want to make history by being the Socialist who turned France around. If not, the next Greece may well speak French.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC,  AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.

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