The Global Mail

How your brain's "fight or flight" response can make you vote right.

By Mike Seccombe

Frank Rizzo was a conservative political archetype. A big, bombastic cop who rose through the ranks to become the controversial police chief of Philadelphia, he later served as the city’s mayor for eight scandal-plagued years, from 1972 to 1980.

He was a high-school dropout with a thuggish, authoritarian approach to policing and politics, who, as The New York Times noted in its obituary, seemed to revel in controversy. The paper recalled him once telling a reporter: “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

But ill-educated and brutish as he was, Rizzo did make at least one very pertinent observation which deserves inclusion in any list of insightful political quotes.

“A conservative,” said Rizzo, “is a liberal who got mugged.”

(NOTE: “liberal” here is used in the American sense, which means progressive; not in the Australian political sense, in which Liberal, with a big “L”, means conservative.)

Rizzo’s statement is more true than he could ever have realised. Not only because he was not a particularly sophisticated thinker, but because he was speaking many decades ago, before modern science proved the point: conservatism tends to be the political expression of the anxious.

And given that we’re now nearing the end of an election campaign that looks likely to end with the body politic taking a big step to the right, this might be a good time to explore the value of anxiety as a conservative political tool.

First, though, a little on the amazing, emerging science of what makes some people progressive, and others conservative.

For a long time, political observers have noted that people’s politics tended to be associated with certain psychological traits.

Dr Peter Hatemi, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney summarised those conservative traits to me last year:

“People on the social right tend to be more closed-minded, more focused on out-groups, more authoritarian, more militant, punitive and retribution-minded,” he said.

Now, Hatemi is not just some leftie political scientist who likes to diss conservatives. True, he is a political scientist, but his eclectic qualifications also include psychology, psychiatry and genetic epidemiology. His full title is Associate Professor of Political Science, Microbiology and Biochemistry at Pennsylvania State University.

As such, he’s up on, indeed has been involved in, research over recent years which shows physiological, even genetic differences that correlate with political views.

There is mounting evidence that conservatives and liberals see, hear and even smell the world differently from one another. I reported some of this research last year; you can read Your Politics Stink here.

Conservatives, for example, tend to have a stronger “startle reflex” in response to sudden loud noise, than liberals do. They exhibit stronger sympathetic-nervous-system reactions to what they perceive as threatening images. They are more inclined to feel disgust and are generally more fearful.

This isn’t just poli-sci theorising; there is strong empirical evidence to back it up, such as neuro-imaging which shows how subjects’ brains light up in response to stimuli.

Indeed, some of that MRI imaging has shown differences in the actual brain structures of conservative and liberal subjects. Some recent studies have shown the brains of people of progressive political persuasion tend to have a bigger, more active anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to have a larger, more active amygdala.

You can read an utterly fascinating explanation of what that means here.

To summarise, the ACC region of the brain is more relevant to analytical thinking and to processing data. As the article says: “When there is a flow of ambiguous information, the ACC helps to discern whether the bits of info are relevant or not, and assigns them value.”

The amygdala, in contrast, is more concerned with memory and emotion. It is activated as part of the “fight or flight” response, and associated with anger and fear. (Interestingly, men have much more prominent amygdalas than women do, which is apparently related to the production of testosterone.)

Thus, the theory goes, liberals are more likely to “engage in more flexible thinking, working through alternate possibilities before committing to a choice. Even after committing, if alternate contradicting data comes along, they would be more likely to consider it.”

Conservative brains, on the other hand, when faced with an ambiguous situation, “tend to process the information initially with a strong emotional response.” Then they would likely opt for “stability … [because] stability means more predictability, which means more expected outcomes, and less of a trigger for anxiety”.

Now, the obvious question which arises from this scientific work is this: Why, if our politics are seemingly hard-wired into us, do the election results differ from one poll to the next? Why do we not all vote the same way every time — as our genetic dispositions dictate?

That, says Peter Hatemi, is because the science indicates only a general disposition. It does not mean our political affiliations are predetermined and permanently fixed.

“[It’s] a trait-level thing and what we encounter [in] our environment is going to modify that, because humans are supremely adaptive.”

And that’s where we get back to Frank Rizzo and his observation that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.

Our political disposition, or at least the disposition of a big enough number of us to swing an election, is apt to change in response to how we are feeling about things at election time.

The more anxious we are, the more likely we are to shift politically to the right. The more content and hopeful, the more likely it is we’ll go the other way.

Look around and you’ll see any number of examples in the real world. Look at how the current economic depression in parts of Europe has been accompanied by a rise in extreme right-wing parties. Look at how the popularity of President George W. Bush’s (a big-amygdala President if ever there was one), zoomed from barely 50 per cent immediately before the September 11 terrorist attacks to 90 per cent just after.

Conversely, look at how Barack Obama, with his calm rationality and optimistic message of hope and possibility, overcame what was objectively a tough economic circumstance in the US. See what happened in the 2007 Australian election, as the economy boomed and the boat people stopped and the “war on terror” wound down and Prime Minister John Howard ran out of issues with which to scare people.

Which brings us to the 2013 Australian federal election, in which Tony Abbott, his political allies and media claque have managed to convince a significant portion of the electorate that it has been mugged.

They have done this not over a few weeks in an election campaign, but over a period of years, and in defiance of the objective evidence.

What’s more they have done it, in many ways, with the complicity of the Labor government, which has shown itself to be rather worse at running the debate than at running the country.

Take for example the cost-of-living myth. As anyone who applies their anterior cingulate cortex to the data can see, the income of the average Australian household has grown consistently faster than its expenses for a couple of decades. Stephen Koukoulas’ recent analysis showed that the average household with an average mortgage is, in fact, a bit over $14,000 a year better off now than in 1987 when Labor came to power.

You might think, under such circumstances, a government would put effort into debunking the myth that people are being squeezed by rising living costs. You would be wrong.

As this graph from The Global Mail’s Party Lines database of Hansard references shows, it was actually Labor, in its first couple of years of government, which spent most time lamenting the cost-of-living squeeze. Since 2010, though, the issue has been one of the main attack lines for the conservatives. And Labor, having perpetrated the lie, has mostly let it go unchallenged. Instead, members of the government have tried to finesse it, empathising with the voters’ imaginary pain.

This is dumb. As is a campaigning style which throws off apparently ill-considered thought bubbles, such as a special development zone in northern Australia, or a vastly expensive high-speed-rail network, or the precipitate relocation of Australia’s major naval facility from Sydney to Brisbane, at astronomical cost. It’s dumb in political terms and in brain-function terms. Half-thought-out schemes do not appeal to the rational, evidence-driven (liberal) voters, and they are apt to startle the anxious (conservative) voters who seek predictability and stability.

But let’s not get bogged down in the government’s political ineptitude. Let’s focus on the Opposition’s clever, cynical means of exciting the electorate’s collective amygdala and negating its higher brain functions.

Some of its techniques are obvious. The stoking of the asylum-seeker issue, for example. For while the flow of boat people is a real and pressing problem, it is also just about perfect for exciting that primitive little conservative, the amygdala, sitting deep in everyone’s temporal lobe.

Consider, if you will, the most ridiculous of all the policy announcements of this election: Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison’s plan to buy the boats of Indonesian people smugglers. It matters not that a reasoned analysis of the policy by PolitiFact found it to be unfeasible to the point of being a “pants on fire” deception.

From a psycho/political point of view that didn’t matter; the policy did not need to appeal to rationality. It needed only to arouse those conservative traits identified by Hatemi: “...more focused on out-groups, more authoritarian, more militant, punitive and retribution-minded”.

Indeed, “tough on” policies are a hardy perennial of the political right. Tough on drugs, tough on crime, et cetera. As a rule they do not work nearly so well for the other side of politics, as we’ve seen in this campaign in which Labor has notably failed to neutralise the boat-people issue, despite having adopted its own extraordinarily punitive suite of policies.

Other aspects of the Opposition campaign are less obviously significant, until you look at them in terms of the relative functioning of conservative and liberal minds. Then they become much clearer. The importance of Tony Abbott’s repeated promise of a “no surprises” government becomes much more apparent when you know how much conservative thought processes rely on predictability and stability.

You don’t want to startle a conservative.

And the effectiveness of the Coalition’s consistent misrepresentation of data — on national debt and budget deficits and of fiscial forecasts by the Departments of Treasury and Finance — also becomes more apparent when you look at it in terms of brain function.

If you are thinking like a liberal, you accord greater significance to empirical information. But if they can load you up with enough conflicting info — by suggesting, for example that Treasury has been cowed into making dodgy forecasts, or is simply inaccurate — you might be left unable to reconcile the ambiguity. And thus more prone to suspect things really are as crook, economically, as the Opposition says.

(If you currently find yourself in such a state of ambiguity, I would suggest having a quick read of this recent piece by economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. The headline on it is Australia, you don’t know how good you’ve got it, and it is quite scathing about the Opposition’s debt-and-deficit scare campaign.)

The same applies to the relatively modest impact of the carbon tax. It applies, indeed, to the Opposition’s muddying of the waters generally on climate change. And to its scare campaign on the mining tax, which is at worst ineffectual.

It applies in particular to the assertion that the current government’s budget difficulties are due to excessive spending.

The result of this spending, if you believe Tony ‘Amygdala’ Abbott, is that Australia is now in a state of “budget emergency”.

(So urgent is this emergency that he has proposed a huge new round of welfare spending — including a $5.5 billion paid parental-leave scheme and the abolition of means testing on the private-health-insurance rebate — and is content to wait 10 years to get the budget back in balance.)

We could go on and on with examples of how the current Opposition, next week’s government, has laboured over years to generate anxiety in the voting population. But I’m sure you can think of plenty of your own.

The bottom line is that, by dint of relentless negativity, Tony Abbott’s opposition has convinced enough swinging voters that they have, in Frank Rizzo’s terms, been mugged over the past three years.

And in truth they have been mugged. The irony is, the victims have misidentified the assailant.

This article was originally published at The Global Mail