Scientists have discovered two simple psychological differences that make you liberal or conservative

trump sotu hands head President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on January 30, 2018. Reuters/Win McNamee

  • The term “bleeding heart liberal” may not be accurate: Conservatives express as much empathy as liberals, but research shows they generally aim it at smaller social circles.
  • In studies, liberal voters have been shown to be less squeamish about “disgusting” images.
  • Socially conservative thinkers, on the other hand, are more likely to turn away quickly from a gross image and stare longer at a faces expressing disgust, suggesting they may be more averse to pathogens and outgroups.

Political battles in the US are often portrayed as a clash between “bleeding heart” liberals and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatives.

Voters who favor opposing parties see various issues differently, but does that mean liberals and conservatives actually process the world through different emotional lenses?

Scientists are beginning to zero in on a few key differences in the ways that people on opposite ends of the political spectrum react to stimuli. A handful of new studies, some still under review, explore some of the subtly different ways that socially conservative and liberal voters respond to images and think about their friends and family.

Conservatives don’t like yucky stuff

A study published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research in January suggests that you might be able to tell whether someone is liberal or conservative simply by the way they react to pictures of gross things like blood, feces or vomit.

The authors found that socially conservative students will physically look away from “disgusting” images more quickly than their liberal peers (but the same didn’t hold true for people with fiscally conservative beliefs). The self-reported social conservatives also stared longer at images of faces reacting in disgust to that same potentially pathogenic stuff.

The trend didn’t hold up for sad or scary scenes, though — there were no notable differences in how people reacted to those based on their political ideology.

For years, social scientists have known that conservatives tend to be more easily grossed out. President Trump, a well-known germaphobe who once advocated for banning the handshake, is perhaps a prime example. There’s also evidence that the areas of the brain that process and express fear are more active in conservative voters, which might make them more likely to quickly turn away from something that could make them sick.

CAR-T blood cancer cell therapy AP

Research has also shown that self-identified conservative thinkers may be more hostile to what social scientists call “outgroups”: people (or animals) that don’t come from the places they do or think like them. That trait may be tied to the tendency to get disgusted more easily — if you’re more likely to turn away from a foreign pathogen, you’re probably also more likely to be averse to unfamiliar groups.

Conservatives, in their tendencies toward closure, order, and stability should expend empathy toward smaller, more well-defined, and less permeable social circles,” Psychologists Adam Waytz, Jesse Graham, and their colleagues wrote in the 2016 book “Social Psychology of Political Polarization.”

“Liberals, in their tendencies toward openness, tolerance for ambiguity, and desire for change, should seek larger, less well-defined, and more permeable social circles,” they said.

Liberals may not be more compassionate than conservatives, but they express sympathy differently

New research on compassion is de-bunking the myth that liberal voters might inherently be more empathetic and kind-hearted people than conservatives. In fact, previous studies have shown that conservatives and liberals are equally generous with their money and their time, they just dole it out in different ways.

Some of Waytz’s forthcoming research provides even more evidence that conservatives can be just as compassionate as liberals. His findings suggest that conservatives are simply more likely to extend that empathy only to their kin. 

Philando Castila vigil people hugging crying Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In an unpublished study, participants first indicated whether they considered themselves “very conservative” or “very liberal”on a scale from 1 to 7. Then they were asked to report how empathetic they felt towards different groups. Conservatives tended to agree with statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for my family members who are less fortunate than me.”

The liberal study subjects more frequently reported feeling that same tenderness toward less fortunate people in general, beyond those in their own families.

Conservatives were also more likely to tell the researchers that they had more empathy for family members over friends, endorsed their fellow countrymen over foreigners, and took the side of humans over non-human subjects.

This research suggests anyone’s heart can “bleed”; conservatives just might be a little more selective about who they’ll bleed for. And they might not want to look at that blood.

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