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Are social conservatives just being squeamish?

Evolutionary psychologists get a bad rap. I should not be surprised, really. They probe motivations for human behaviour that often exist far beneath conscious thought and the sanitised stories people tell themselves about why they do what they do. Some evolutionary explanations for human behaviour sound so outrageous that the only reasonable reaction seems to be … outrage.

In this vein, I recently enjoyed a hugely productive detour into the science of social conservatism. Not to say that conservatism is a science. That would be ironic. I mean the evolutionary explanations for why some people gravitate toward conservatism and others toward progressive ideas.

It started with a few posts by US author Chris Mooney, promoting his recent book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science – And Reality. Which introduced me to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt studies moral intuitions which bias our responses to particular situations in predictable ways. The six main intuitions, or moral foundations as Haidt and his colleagues have called them are: a need to protect others from harm; a sense of fairness; loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for one’s group; an impulse toward liberty from oppression; a respect for authority; and purity, the idea that certain sacred or pure things should be preserved.

In Haidt’s studies, conservatives respond strongly to each of these six intuitions, whereas progressives have a different idea of liberty, less respect for authority and a weaker intuition for purity. They also concern themselves less about their own group and extend their compassion to a wider group.

But by far the coolest explanation - by no means mutually exclusive to Haidt’s moral foundations or George Lakoff’sstrict father’ explanation - comes out of evolutionary psychology. It is psychologist Mark Schaller’s notion of the “behavioural immune system.”

Evolutionary biologists have known for some time that few agents exact as strong selection on a population as pathogens and parasites do. Immune genes are almost always among the fastest-evolving genes in a population because hosts and their parasites lock one another into a perennial arms race of offense and defence. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel remains a fascinating introduction to the large-scale consequences of disease for recent human evolution and the history of society.

Schaller’s inspired suggestion was that certain behaviours allow us to detect cues of likely infection, respond to those cues and thus avoid pathogen infection. These adaptations, together, comprise the Behavioural Immune System (BIS). Not really an immune system, the BIS is more a suite of psychological adaptations that tend to reduce the chances of infection.

Disgust, very much the fashionable emotion du jour, serves as an important component of the BIS. So does a general distrust of strangers. That’s because in our long history of living in small groups where everyone knew each other, new infections usually came from outside.

If the BIS so effectively helps people avoid new diseases, then why don’t we all just turn it up to 11? Well, if one can transcend disgust, contact with strangers has its benefits. Sex, for example, rather depends on suspending disgust in order to share bodily fluids. Equally importantly, trade would become impossible if we were not able to overcome our fear of strangers and any pathogens they might bear.

And so the BIS varies in strength, from person to person and situation to situation. When cues of contagion are rife, people become more insular, less open to new experience and far less trusting of strangers. Pictures of vomit, blood or faeces, or the smell of garbage, not only affect disgust, they also prompt people to behave more conservatively.

Enter stage right

The tendencies to adhere to tradition, submit to authority and conform to hierarchy are all part of the socially conservative repertoire. As is a strong tendency to act unwelcomingly or aggressively toward out-group members. All of these behaviours promote in-group cohesion and negativity toward out-group members. Exactly the kinds of behaviours, then, that would minimise the risks of infection during an epidemic.

In the few short years since Schaller first mooted the idea of the Behavioural Immune System, studies claiming all manner of links between the BIS and conservative impulses have cropped up. Disgust, it seems, is an important component of the mistrust that right-wing authoritarians show toward foreigners and the profound ease that religious conservatives feel toward homosexuals and transexuals.

Individuals with stronger BIS responses tend also to be less open (openness being one of the Big Five personality dimensions) to new experiences and to variation in sociosexuality. They also tend to be more strongly socially and politically conservative. And countries where disease is more prevalent and healthcare less adequate tend also to be more socially, sexually and politically conservative, even after controlling for economic differences.

And yet despite the steady stream of evidence, to which I have only paid passing attention, the links between socially and morally conservative impulses and behaviours that protect individuals from infection seemed to me to be among the more fantastic claims emanating from evolutionary psychology. Was this stuff the real deal, or perhaps it was the kind of flimsy stuff that defies replication and is soon forgotten?

To that end, I was pleased today to discover in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior a meta-analysis of the studies performed thus far testing the links between social conservatism and the behavioural immune system. Meta-analyses provide invaluable opportunities to assess the overall forest of results without being distracted by any particularly spectacular trees - the news-making single studies.

This meta-analysis, led by John A Terrizi, assembled the 24 studies that have been performed in this area in the last five years. The results suggest that the links between the BIS and socially conservative attitudes and behaviour are real and solid.

According to the authors:

The results indicate that behavioral immune strength, as indicated by fear of contamination and disgust sensitivity, is positively related to social conservatism (i.e., right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, religious fundamentalism, ethnocentrism, collectivism, and political conservatism). These findings provide initial evidence that socially conservative values may function as evolutionarily evoked disease-avoidance strategies.

So, it seems conservatism has its uses. Or had its uses in our evolutionary past. Perhaps that’s why US Republicans so abhor President Obama’s Affordable Care Act? It may, literally, present the cure for Republican social conservatism.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I think something was overlooked.

    There would be suspicions of strangers, because strangers might want to steal or pillage.

    In the case of the US health system, it is very unhealthy, and more money is spent on that health system than is spent in many other countries, for less health benefits.

    "It may, literally, present the cure for Republican social conservatism"

    One day there may be a cure for the overwhelming left-wing bias in US universities and in Australian universities, or if universities do not do something about their bias, the cure would be a overwhelming cut in funding.

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    1. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale

      Consider this quote from Rob's article: "...Individuals with stronger BIS responses tend also to be less open (openness being one of the Big Five personality dimensions) to new experiences...".

      Yet isn't that the essence of Academic life & work. Most of academia is about discovering new things, whether in Science, or through a greater understanding of History or whatever. Isn't a willingness, even a desire, to seek new experiences, new ideas the essence of what Academia is all about…

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      No, Im with Dale on this one.

      It has been well documented that Reality has a left wing bias

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Glenn Tamblyn
      Bias means that only one side of the story gets told.

      The concept that university academics in Australia are willing to see a situation objectively is laughable.

      As for the US Republican Party, many seem to be concerned about current government spending, national dept vs GDP, and if trends continue, US Social Security combined with US health-care programs will likely consume almost all US tax revenues by 2035.

      But by that stage, Obama will probably operate the money printing presses himself, although the US dollar will be worthless.

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    4. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale

      "Bias means that only one side of the story gets told.".

      Big assumption in that statement Dale, although it reflects a common right-wing view. Sometimes I'm sure its true.

      However, consider an alternative form of bias. There is only one 'story'. The laws of physics, the nature of the physical Universe around us. There aren't multiple Universes with different realities - leaving aside deeper subjects like Cosmology.

      However, there are still two competing possible 'realities…

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  2. Yuri Pannikin

    Director

    If you're suggesting that evolutionary psychologists themselves, or students of the discipline tend to be 'conservative', I'm not sure I agree.

    Steven Pinker, one of the great thinkers of out time, would no doubt be an exception to that rule; described as "neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian".

    Which sounds like a very progressive world view to me.

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    1. Rob Brooks
      Rob Brooks is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      I'm certainly not saying evolutionists or evolutionary psychologists tend to be conservative. In my experience they hold a range of political views, but like most academics more tend to be progressive than conservative. Pinker is a good example, and I agree one of the great thinkers and communicators.

      But evolution and EvPsych have always sustained attacks from both the right (creationists and anti-science conservatives) and the far left (social constructionists, Marxists etc who feel it substantiates stereotypes and reflects only the author's ideologic biases). I think leftist anti-scientism is underestimated as a threat to reason and progressive thought.

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    2. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      "I think leftist anti-scientism is underestimated as a threat to reason and progressive thought."

      I could not agree more. It disturbs me to see how the piffle that was Marxism was embraced, in many ways, by such a distinguished(?) crowd of so-called intellectuals.

      Pity they hadn't studied some biology and hard science, which is not to say that evolutionary psychologists have all the answers, but the Blank Slate mob certainly do have a lot to answer for.

      Sociologists and political scientists (and some historians) are often on the wrong side of reason and evidence-based rationality. Not to mention journalists. (I told you not to mention journalists!)

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  4. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    "Sex, for example, rather depends on suspending disgust in order to share bodily fluids."...

    Ah you smooth-talking ecological bastards! Those wine and cheese evenings must fair bristle with barely concealed revulsion... an ambience of nauseated nuance.

    Actually I'm surprised there are so many of you evolutionary ecology fellas about with such a perfunctory approach to romance. Still what would I know eh? We lessers can but look on in awe. Bit Neanderthaler though if you don't mind…

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    1. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "Most folks stick with cousins, but I have heard of people bringing in foreigners and city folks for this very purpose."

      Good lord, dear boy. You are indeed proto-Neandertal. Nowadays, if you want a fine filly with all the right papers, you join an "adults" (Benny Hill "nudge nudge") online "dating" service, and get one home-delivered, already viewed and vetted online, without having to unsettle her men folk by crossing their territory. Or if you are more the homo erectus type, they have sites for you too. And I understand the boys are especially particular about their grooming, and often come with a dowry and/or glory box.

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    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Pete, you're a card.

      Play yourself and one of them blue haired sheilas at the CWA could just volunteer to visit you in the old bat cave.

      Your drivel is so entertainingly eloquent, every time. Smooth talkin' clearly ain't just for the city mice.

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  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "Evolutionary psychologists get a bad rap. I should not be surprised, really. They probe motivations for human behaviour that often exist far beneath conscious thought and the sanitised stories people tell themselves about why they do what they do. "

    If you ever come across someone probing motivations beneath conscious thought and sanitised stories be sure to let me know.

    The ones that I come across get a bad rap because they dabble in just-so stories, pseudo science where the methodology is so lax they can promote any thought-bubble into what it pleases them to call "a theory."

    I get the feeling that Dr Brooks just read the abstract and thought he would have a little troll.

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  6. Sally Keller

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    So many revisionist errors with this article its just too much to critique for any single person with a family. The sociological adaption labelled BIS overlooks so many contingencies it reads like highschool sci-fi.

    Four generations of Americans after the founding fathers in one small instance shows that moral & social conservatives were the ones continually trying to restore the breach between native and foreigner, even inter marrying to the disgust of progressive or more accurately at that time, the slightly less religious.

    All the while these deep social conservative straight of out Elizabethan England defied authority to the point of treason.

    This is not an aberration its one of many examples. I think the author wants to try and theorize one point in time in one place of the world. Pens weep at the waste of ink.

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  7. Chris Richardson

    Doctor

    I found this article very interesting (as I do all stuff to do with evolutionary psychology). How you define "conservative" in any conversation like this can be problematic, and indeed misleading. The assumption is often that the word "conservative" is used pejoratively, which can lead to hackles being raised! Of course, the ultimate conclusion one might make about this kind of research is that no-one of us, conservative and progressive alike, are ultimately responsible for our political choices since is arises from a deeply ingrained evolutionary source. In which case no one can really take the high moral ground!!

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    1. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Ah, but the genotype is not necessarily the phenotype. There is still room for rational thought, analysis, and appropriate behaviour.

      We are neither blank slates nor genobots, but sometimes we do have to overcome genetic predisposition in order to act in a socially productive and harmonious manner.

      It's called intelligence.

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    2. Rob Brooks
      Rob Brooks is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      One of the things I find myself trying most hard to battle is the idea that just because an intuition or behaviour has an evolutionary basis it is somehow deeply ingrained, immutable and irresistible. I think the crappy metaphor of "hard-wiring" and similar expressions has a lot to answer for, because it sets up a strong opposition to the idea that experience, learning and reason are powerless to oppose traits that have evolved.

      I'm hoping that behavioural economics, including developments like Nudge Theory will show us the way to a kind of pluralism in which demonstrating an evolved basis for behaviour does not absolve personal responsibility or argue that education, behavioural modelling etc is hopeless.

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    3. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Rob

      I agree, that we have to be very careful about ascribing too much weight to notions of pre-disposition, just as we should avoid ascribing too littleweight. Rather the goal of research should be to explore the relative contribution of 'predisposition' in different contexts and for different individuals.

      Yes, experience can change us. But it can just as much change us in negative, destructive ways as it can in positive ones. So the further challengeis then to identify what types of situations…

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  8. Chris Richardson

    Doctor

    So of course there the age old "nature vs nuture" and I was being tongue-in-cheek in suggesting that we could conclude from this research that our political choices are entirely hard-wired. Nevertheless, without knowing what weight to put on evolutionary influences, we must be a little circumspect in making claims about how easily these influences can be overcome.

    @ Yuri who wrote "but sometimes we do have to overcome genetic predisposition in order to act in a socially productive and harmonious manner....it's called intelligence" - I disagree that intelligence (which is probably pretty hard-wired!) has much to do with it. More likely it's education and knowledge that are required.

    And I agree with Glenn that experiences change us (via neuroplasticy) in ways we can't control - which begs the question of how much control do we actually have as individuals about the thoughts we have, the choices we make, and the behaviours we engage in. Very little I suspect.

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