Understanding Conservatives

by Ross Bishop

Progressives and conservatives have been engaged in political conflict since forever, and although we have learned empirically to deal with each other, it has been only recently that we have begun to understand the origins of our respective differences. Although there are many factors that contribute to a person’s political perspective, researchers have begun to pinpoint the critical factors that explain where on the political spectrum a person is likely to land.

From the conservative side, the dominant determining quality is the need for a sense of security. The interpretation of and anxiety about, life’s uncertainties, shape our basic predisposition to it. We live in an uncertain world and one’s feelings about the vagaries of life largely determine whether or not one moves to the conservative side of the scale.

It is easy to see someone who holds differing views as “wrong” but it is important to keep in mind that we all think we see the world clearly. We don’t. Each of us sees the world distorted through the lens of our personal perspective. That makes it very difficult to really understand a person who feels about things differently. What may seem reasonable to you can seem very threatening to someone else, and the difference can be almost beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Psychologists have found that conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, and this explains why conservatives typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions. “Conservatism, apparently, helps to protect people against some of the natural difficulties of living,” says social psychologist Paul Nail of the University of Central Arkansas. “The fact is we don’t live in a completely safe world. Things can and do go wrong. But if I can impose this order on it by my worldview, I can keep my anxiety to a manageable level.”

One group of social researchers reported on an exercise they conducted: “. . . we had them (subjects) engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm. . . their responses . . . showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.“

In a recent Washington Post article, John Bargh, reported, “Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals.”

In an article, “Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives’ Political Attitudes,” in Psychology Today, Bobby Azarian Ph.D, wrote, “. . . empirical evidence tells us that conservatives and liberals don’t just have different outlooks and opinions. They also have different brains. This means that our choice of political affiliation and overall worldview may not really be all that much of a choice.

1. Conservatives tend to focus on the negative.

This is what psychologists call a “negativity bias”. If you think about it, this makes sense. When attention is biased toward the negative, the result is an overly threat-conscious appraisal of one’s surroundings. Essentially, to many conservatives the world looks like a much scarier place. This would seem to explain why so many major conservative viewpoints tend to be rooted in irrational fears—like fear of the government, immigrants, Muslims, vaccinations, etc.

2. Conservatives have a stronger physiological response to threat.

Peer-reviewed research shows that conservatives are more sensitive to threat. While this threat-bias can distort reality, fuel irrational fears, and make one more vulnerable to fear-mongering politicians, it could also promote hypervigilance. A 2008 study published in the journal Science found that conservatives had a stronger physiological response to startling noises and graphic images. This adds to a growing body of research that indicates a hypersensitivity to threat—a hallmark of anxiety.

3. Conservatives fear new experiences.

Another 2008 study catalogued items found in the bedrooms of college students and saw that while liberals owned more books and travel-related items, conservatives had more things that kept order in their lives, like calendars and cleaning supplies. This tells us that liberals more often seek adventure and novel experiences. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to prefer a more ordered, disciplined lifestyle. This could help explain why they are so resistant to change and progressive policies.

4. Conservatives’ brains are more reactive to fear.

Using MRI scans, scientists from University College London have found that students who identify themselves as conservatives have a larger amygdala than self-described liberals. This brain structure is involved in emotion processing, and is especially reactive to fearful stimuli. It is possible that an oversized amygdala could create a heightened sensitivity that may cause one to habitually overreact to anything that appears to be a potential threat, whether it actually is one or not.

So ultimately what we are dealing with is fear. Fear that someone more powerful will take away what I have. Fear that someone with different values will threaten my beliefs, take my job or jeopardize my lifestyle and family security. Since these are irrational fears, they cannot be answered by rational responses, such as with facts.

They will not admit it, may not even be aware of it, but conservatives tend to be afraid of the different values held by gay people or black and brown people. This threatens their fundamental sense of security. Conservatives also have a higher anxiety about being robbed or mugged. Male conservatives tend to be afraid of women. Conservatives migrate toward demagogues as political leaders because they make them feel safer. So they also love guns and walls because these things make them feel safe.

Underlying all of this are deeply held feelings of personal inadequacy. Conservatives fear their adequacy and will react fiercely when challenged about it. But, on the positive side, in the boiling water of social and political attitudes, it seems this anxiety can be turned up or down by changing how physically safe they feel.

Today’s Trump supporter is not really supporting Trump. People who support Trump don’t really support him or what he does. That’s why they can accept his shenanigans and moral turpitude. Trump supporters disdain is for the people who oppose Trump. The Trump defenders are not defending Trump so much as they are indicating that they don’t like you or anything you stand for. That’s why Obama and Hillary are brought up so often.

They hate progressives from deep in their fibrous souls. They hate them because of race, social standing and basic philosophy of life. One hundred and sixty years ago, The Civil War was fought over these same differences of beliefs and feelings. Our present national divide is about undisguised disgust, directed at what Trump supporters see as a disastrous downward social spiral.

If Obama went to Helsinki and cozied up to Putin like Trump did, he would have been impeached as a traitor and run out of town, probably before he returned home. Hillary too. And the people who are ‘supporting’ Trump can’t wait for you to complain about what he does. They don’t care what he does. They have a total dislike for what they perceive you stand for.

Trumpers perceive themselves as hard-working, never back down, god-fearing, and tough-as-nails ready-for-combat soldiers. Todays deep national divide has little to do with the characters who’ve risen to the top of the heap. And in spite of a white trash, gun loving, Walmart shopping image, they do not view themselves that way. And they see you, if you oppose Trump, as weak, needy, black, brown, yellow or red, crying and lazy complainers who want the life they think they have or deserve. If you are a Trump detractor, you will react to this hatred with brands of your own – #MeToo, Time Up’s, Black Lives Matter Never Again, etc.

So here we are. And the solution is staring us in the face. The remedy is Truth. But how do we find ways to get there and how do we accommodate one another? The answer is to find a way to view the truth as truth. They are tough and weak. You are tough and weak. They accept help when they need it, just like you and I. They believe in the same God, for the most part and so do you and I. Some have more stuff and some have less. We are the same, but right now we do not see things that way. I am not sure that face to face interactions will solve the “problem” either, but hearing from a minority person that they don’t want to steal your job, that they just want to feed their family, etc., might help.

In some rather interesting research into terrorism, researchers found that terrorists were surprisingly like you and me. The only difference was that they had lost a family member to a drone bombing or other military action, and they wanted, perhaps demanded, is a better word, revenge. The mass media can begin to heal this mess by truthful portrayal of those things and these people, because it’s not about what people, including the leaders, do. It’s about what we all believe.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2018

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