Fear can be useful with respect to decisions like, say, whether or not to chase a bear with a stick, but for higher-level thinking the frightened state of mind blows goats. People do irrational, stupid, senselessly violent things when motivated by fear.
Naturally fear has its political uses. Steering a frightened public towards a stupid policy is, so to speak, frighteningly easy. When terrorists attacked America a normal leadership would have gone out of its way to reassure people and calm nerves. The GOP went the other way, maybe disgracefully, but in naked terrorist fear Republicans found a winning meal ticket at a time when national polls put them on the wrong side of virtually every issue.
Anyhow, on the topic social science that we should probably leave alone but due to some personal flaw just can’t, here are two more editions of science revealing what we already know.
First, an unpleasant surprise frightens conservatives more than liberals.
[Subjects] were attached to equipment to measure skin conductivity, which rises with emotional stress as the moisture level in skin goes up. Each participant was shown threatening images, such as a bloody face interspersed with innocuous pictures of things such as bunnies, and rise in skin conductance in response to the shocking image was measured. The other measure was the involuntary eye blink that people have in response to something startling, such as a sudden loud noise. The scientists measured the amplitude of blinks via electrodes that detected muscle contractions under people’s eyes.
The researchers found that both of these responses correlated significantly with whether a person was liberal or conservative socially. Subjects who had expressed a high level of support for policies “protecting the social unit” showed a much larger change in skin conductance in response to alarming photos than those who didn’t support such policies. Similarly, the mean blink amplitude for the socially protective subjects was significantly higher, the team reports in tomorrow’s issue of Science. Co-author Kevin Smith says the results showed that automatic fear responses are better predictors of protective attitudes than sex or age (men and older people tend to be more conservative).
To be honest this result is so un-novel that it’s almost a tautology. One basic definition of conservatism is a negative reaction to whatever is new and shocking at a given point in time, whether the problem du jour is interreligious marriage, interracial marriage or gay marriage. Social progress generally involves accepting things that shock most people who see it for the first time relatively late in life. The liberal deals with his shock and gets over it where the conservative internalizes his discomfort and transforms it into a Kantian moral imperative. Finding out that unpleasant surprise impacts the conservative more strongly therefore beats reporting that the sun will come up in the east tomorrow, but not by much.
On the other hand, it’s curious to find that disproving rightwing lies only makes them believe it more.
Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.
A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.
In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.
Now you know why Atrios calls them “zombie lies.” But on reflection ‘zombie’ still doesn’t cover the perversity of this phenomenon. In most movies a zombie will go down if you hit it in the head hard enough. Rightwing lies aren’t just hard to kill, they get stronger the more thoroughly you kill them. Wingnut rumors function more like that mythical critter that grew two heads every time Hercules cut one off, except even the hydra eventually died. By comparison about 29% of America continue to think that Saddam had a WMD program and sat down with bin Laden to plan 9/11. In that sense the hydra is a piker next to rightwing stupidity. There’s nothing like it.