Fear is the brain-sucker

No big surprise. Via.

Using a large sample of related individuals, including twins, siblings, and parents and children, [Rose McDermott, professor of political science, and colleagues at Brown University] first assessed individuals for their propensity for fear using standardized clinically administered interviews. Looking at subjects who were related to one another, the researchers were able to identify influences such as environment and personal experience and found that some individuals also possessed a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear. Such individuals are more prepared to experience fear in general at lower levels of threat or provocation.

Next, the researchers surveyed the sample for their attitudes toward out-groups — immigrants in this case — as well as toward segregation. Participants were also ranked on a liberal-conservative partisanship scale depending on how they self-reported their political attitudes.

The research indicates a strong correlation between social fear and anti-immigration, pro-segregation attitudes. While those individuals with higher levels of social fear exhibited the strongest negative out-group attitudes, even the lowest amount of social phobia was related to substantially less positive out-group attitudes.

The take-home quote.

“It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative.”

Have we heard this before? Why yes we have.

In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids’ personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months.

…A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

The theory that fear, and racial fear in particular, explains the special American brand of wingnut crazy was popularized by noted social psychologist Michael Moore.

50 replies
  1. 1
    Steeplejack says:

    Off-topic but hilarious:

    God said, “I need someone who doesn’t grow anything or make anything but who will borrow money from the public at 0% interest and then lend it back to the public at 2% or 5% or 10% and pay himself a bonus for doing so.”

    “So God Made a Banker.”

  2. 2
    Joel says:

    The Bell Curve, indeed…

  3. 3
    Mike G says:

    Stand by for rightard denunciations of the “ultra-librul Brown University.”
    Too bad for the wingnuts it’s not a Centers For Disease Control study, or their congresstools could ban all funding for this type of research.

    Fear certainly seems to be the dominant strain in the personalities of my conservative acquaintances.

  4. 4
    MikeJ says:

    I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.

    John Stuart Mill

  5. 5
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if fear was also one of the things that keeps people from traveling and seeing, for example, that Europe is not a socialist hellhole.

  6. 6
    General Stuck says:

    I’ve always thought that wingnuts for the most part, have a wiring problem that keeps them from processing fear in a normal way, and it comes out as all kinds of projected violence and bigotry, and general whackjobiness. The more the fear, the bigger the wingnut. The worst ones, I think, have an basic existential fear of mortality that nags at them every day.

    I’m not a social psychologist, but read Readers Digest a whole lot.

  7. 7
    MikeJ says:

    @General Stuck:

    The worst ones, I think, have an basic existential fear of mortality that nags at them every day.

    The base cause of Fox Geezer Syndrome? They see their days dwindling and presto.

  8. 8
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Also, this fits my anecdotal experience. All the righties I know are scared of everything. It is the foundation of Cheney’s 1% doctrine (not the take everything for the 1% one, the one foreign policy one).

  9. 9
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Yeah, one of the things I observed during my tour in Germany was that many of the troops could not wait to use 30 days leave to go back to “the world”.

    I use my leave to Eurail all over western Europe. Separate weekend trips to Paris and London. Skiing in the Alps.

  10. 10
    Mike in NC says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if fear was also one of the things that keeps people from traveling and seeing, for example, that Europe is not a socialist hellhole.

    Nah, they seldom venture outside of their comfort zone or interact with new people, preferring to stay inside their homes with the shades drawn, triple locks on the front door, and FOX News and talk radio confirming all of their paranoia.

  11. 11
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: You recall the term ROAD? Retired On Active Duty – the guys who were near their 20 and did as little as possible while they waited for retirement? My friends and I decided we were TOADs, Tourists On Active Duty. None of us intended to stay in so we used every chance we had to get around.

  12. 12
    Jewish Steel says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Same here. “Aren’t Mexicans scary?” could be the shorter for almost every conversation I’ve had with conservatives that ranges outside of pleasantries.

  13. 13
    Poopyman says:

    @General Stuck:

    I’m not a social psychologist, but read Readers Digest a whole lot.

    You bastard. I just snorted a grain of rice out my nose while eating lunch.

    @MikeJ: Does not explain us olds on the liberal side with the same sense of mortality.

  14. 14
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Poopyman: It isn’t the sense of mortality; it is how you use it.

  15. 15
    catclub says:

    The most frequent thing Jesus says in the Gospels is “Fear Not”.

    Yet another thing that did not take (“Love thy neighbor”)

  16. 16
    Alison says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Yeah, isn’t it interesting how they constantly call liberals wimps, pussies, softies, etc…and yet they’re the ones who are apparently terrified of leaving the house (or staying inside it) without being armed to the teeth and think every person with a skin tone darker than an eggshell is obviously a drugged-up killer.

    I mean…

  17. 17
    schrodinger's cat says:

    Its not just the GOP, it is true of conservatives in general. They fear change, they fear anyone who is not exactly like them.

  18. 18
    Paul in KY says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I had a couple ROADers. Tough to get good work out of when they know they’ll be gone in 6 months.

    One of them drank himself to death within a year after retiring.

  19. 19
    Lorinda Pike says:


    They see their days dwindling and presto.

    I see my days dwindling, and I want to do crazy things like jump out of perfectly good airplanes, hang by my fingernails off a 90-degree cliff face, take off my scuba tanks and push them into the cave entrance that is too small for both my tanks and me, live in a country with single-payer healthcare, marriage equality…

    Excessive fear is a character flaw.

  20. 20
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Paul in KY: Yeah, trying getting good work out a a group of single 1LTs who have realized that the army isn’t their career, that they are stationed at most a few hours from a shitload of cool stuff, and that, since the Wall had just come down, WWIII wasn’t particularly imminent. We did just enough work during the week that we could get away on the weekends.

  21. 21
    MikeJ says:

    @Lorinda Pike: For the Fox Geezers the fear of mortality was already there. For people that are already afraid of the inevitable, the fear builds as it approaches.

  22. 22
    Lorinda Pike says:

    @MikeJ: And that makes it all the more sad. Seriously, sometimes my derision is tinged with pity.

    But not much…

  23. 23
    DonT says:

    @Mike in NC:
    that’s why disney invented Epcot

  24. 24
    WereBear says:

    I believe it is often their upbringing.

    The wingnuts I know were raised by screaming and hitting and demands of obedience with no explanation. Before they could even articulate thoughts they learned to shut up and do as they are told. Punishment seems to drop from the sky with no rationale.

    It’s a recipe for fearful lashing out.

  25. 25
    aimai says:


    It seems reductionist, but I totally agree. I remember watching a young red state mother sitting with her toddler in her lap at a fourth of july parade. She got talked to by the police for slapping her baby and she was interviewed about it and she honestly seemed puzzled by the furor. It seemed obvious to her that the only method for controlling a cranky baby was a good potch in the face. Getting up, moving to a shady spot, distracting her–it was simply not in her skill set. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with slapping the baby–in fact she was about to do it again because the baby was climbing all over her and she still couldn’t figure out how to manage the situation without violence. She didn’t think it would harm the baby–she didn’t really think about the baby in those terms, as a thinking/feeling/learning person. She thought of it more as an uncontrollable animal that needed to be smacked with a rolled up newspaper.

  26. 26
    johnny aquitard says:


    isn’t it interesting how they constantly call liberals wimps, pussies, softies, etc

    It’s projection all the time for conservatives.

    IIRC Bob Altemeyer’s studies on right wing authoritarian followers showed that such people have much higher levels of fear. (p. 61).

    Authoritarian followers score highly on the Dangerous World scale, and it’s not just because some of the items have a religious context. High RWAs are, in general, more afraid than most people are. They got a “2 for 1 Special Deal” on fear somehow.

    Thus it turns out in experiments that a person’s fear of a dangerous world predicts various kinds of authoritarian aggression better than any other unpleasant feeling I have looked at.

  27. 27
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Paul in KY: Jeez.

    I had a coworker who did that. Blue collar work, not the military.

  28. 28
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @WereBear: This.

  29. 29
    aimai says:

    @johnny aquitard:

    I think Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” and Fred Clark’s series on LaHaye and Jenkin’s End Times slashfic are the most important readings for understanding specifically American forms of authoritarian right wing political and cultural tropes.

    My favorite part of The Authoritarians is when Altemeyer administers a test series of questions to his Canadian Subjects. They move very rapidly from “It is lawful for the police to watch, detain, torture a person who is a member of a terrorist organization” to “I would help the police watch, detain, torture a person who the police had designated as a member of a a terrorist organization.” At that point he begins substituting other kinds of organizations for the hypothetical criminal/terrorist organization. He winds up putting in organizations, like the “Canadian Milk Board” which he knows many of the test takers themselves belong to. But once they have been given the go ahead by an authority, like “the police” they will absolutely willingly spy on themselves or report on themselves or turn themselves in for being a member of the Canadian Milk Board.

    To me one of the prime differences between us and them is a sense of absurdity and proportion–the kind of thing that makes you instinctively laugh at the incongruity of the Police asking you to spy on “members of the Canadian Milk Board.”

  30. 30
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @aimai: To be fair, I think we have all been a bit suspicious of the CMB folks for quite a while now.

  31. 31
    Quicksand says:

    @General Stuck:

    I’ve always thought that wingnuts for the most part, have a wiring problem that keeps them from processing fear in a normal way, and it comes out as all kinds of projected violence and bigotry, and general whackjobiness.

    Who are you to say that’s not the NORMAL way?


    Oh, never mind, just the mail.

  32. 32
    johnny aquitard says:

    @aimai: I first read Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians in 06 or 07, when I was reading stuff about John Dean’s Conservatives Without a Conscience. It was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments for me. In the years since I keep seeing Altemeyer’s conclusions show up again and again in what conservatives do.

    Also, your observation about one of his experiments and the lack of a sense of absurd in conservatives is interesting — I can’t help think there’s something to that.

    Time and again we see how conservatives just don’t get (or do) satire, and a big part of satire is taking something to an absurd level (“mine goes to 11”) to make the point. Which is where the humor comes in. Which they simply don’t get. They seem to understand it on a certain level but they don’t really ‘get’ it. Like you noted it just doesn’t trip that ‘absurd response’ in them. They see it as plausible as anything else. It’s as if they believe ’11’ can be a valid and real number as any else on their dial.

    BTW, that whole Spinal Tap bit I referenced reminds me of something else. Perhaps the ability to pick up on the absurd (and exploit it for laughs) has something to do with why it’s been comedians like Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, etc who have been the truth-tellers during this age of Movement Conservatism. They pick up on it better than most people, and like Jon Stewart, can juxtapose conservative thinking with examples of reality to made the absurdity extra manifest — and thus the humor. But you still got to have your ‘mine goes to 11’ detector working. Conservatives don’t. They somehow lack one. So they think stuff like Colbert’s schtick is real. They can’t tell truth from the put-on, if you don’t have the ability to identify absurdity from reality, it all looks real.

    Which is maybe why they are such easy marks for grifters like Palin, Gingrich, Reed and oh hell most of the conservative political leadership.

  33. 33
    sm*t cl*de says:

    Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased)

    Now both deceased, alas.

  34. 34
    Brachiator says:

    The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

    Not buying it. “Whiny” and “confident,” or “liberal” and “conservative” are not real categories, but arbitrary social and political labels.

    It’s flattering, and I would say that some of the observations seem reasonable, but you really have to take this stuff with a grain, no a mountain, of salt.

  35. 35
    Alien Radio says:

    @Brachiator: as an introverted unconfident kid, who became a raging lefty, it can’t just be that.

  36. 36
    Kip the Wonder Rat says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Spot-on.

    I have never met a bunch of bigger whiners. Present company excepted, of course.


  37. 37
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Kip the Wonder Rat: We don’t whine; we bitch.

  38. 38

    I think a better way to put it is to talk about “authoritarians” rather than “conservatives”. These are the children who would have grown up to be NKVD agents in the USSR in the 1910’s and 20’s; or into devoted communist party flunkies in China. As always, Bob Altmeyer is invaluable if you want to understand this kind of thing.

  39. 39
    MariedeGournay says:

    Study reminds me of Denethor from “The Return of the King.” So terrified of change, of losing what he had that he was willing to burn himself and son on a pyre. “Why? Why do the fools fly? . . . Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must.”

  40. 40
    West of the Rockies says:

    Probably few will read this, but I simply must ask if you’re making a veiled Dune reference here, Tim.

    Litany against Fear

    I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.

  41. 41
    Patricia Kayden says:

    “The research indicates a strong correlation between social fear and anti-immigration, pro-segregation attitudes.”

    And the Black Kenyan Socialist Muslim in the White House isn’t helping, DANG IT!

  42. 42
    FDRLincoln says:

    Welll…..I don’t know about this.

    I was a really whiny kid. I was scared of everything. Social anxiety. Depression. Terrified of other kids. Lacked confidence.

    This got better when I got to college and I gradually matured out of it, although I still whine too much sometimes.

    But I was ALWAYS very liberal in social, economic, and political attitudes, even when I was afraid. Meanwhile, most of the confident, outgoing kids I knew growing up turned into asshole conservatives.

    Anecdotes of course but while I agree that many conservatives are fearful, I don’t buy this stuff about childhood.

  43. 43
    liberal says:


    Very pithily describes the lucrative privilege government has bestowed upon banks (creating money out of thin air and charging interest on it).

  44. 44
    Platonicspoof says:

    @Zapruder F. Mashtots, D.D.S. (Mumphrey, et al.):
    Thanks for giving everyone the link. For those scrolling through fast, I was going to mention that Altemeyer has offered his book as a free pdf file for some time now.

    But I didn’t know about the two new files (also pdf) on the 2008 election and the T.P.ers.

    And in a far away galaxy, I remember/read about preserve the commons/protect the little guy conservatives, so I also prefer authoritarian/reactionary/fascist/racist/etc. specific terminology.

  45. 45
    bad Jim says:

    Fearfulness being hereditary (which is not the same as genetic — an accent is hereditary) would help to explain why disadvantaged regions become and remain conservative. The fearless ones leave in search of novelty and opportunity, while the fearful remain, preferring an unrewarding but familiar place to the threatening unknown.

  46. 46
    Tim F. says:

    @West of the Rockies: Huh. I thought that was obvious.

  47. 47
    Visceral says:

    This makes a lot of sense, but it’s kind of the opposite of my own experience. The most politically right wing people I know are also the most confident in themselves: convinced of their superior ability and morality. They think they’re supermen who can “handle freedom” and will thrive in the anti-institutional Wild West society they seem determined to create, a society they’re convinced will be open and just.

    By contrast, it’s the handful of left wingers (including and especially myself) I know who are possessed of a vision of a right-wing dystopia full of misery and death, lorded over by a gluttonous and sadistic elite.

  48. 48
    West of the Rockies (formerly Frank W.) says:

    @Tim F.: I’d have thought so, too, but I saw no one acknowledge the reference and thought I’d ask. Dune has legions of fans but also its share of naysayers. Pretty clearly, I am a fan.

  49. 49
    CaliCat says:

    Well, this explains Doomsday Preppers. I want to come up with a product to sell to the DP crowd so I can make a butt load of money. I won’t go the gun route but maybe something like freeze dried chicken nuggets would sell. Eh, someone’s probably already though of that. Regardless, I want my piece of the pie!

  50. 50
    fuckwit says:

    There’s more to it. Moore really is brilliant, and that movie was his peak, IMHO.

    I rewatched it recently after Sandy Hook.

    He very cleverly does not state any root cause. He lists them all, and exposes almost all of them for the idiocy they are (Marilyn Manson? Video games? Really?). He points at the media, and deservedly so. But that’s not all. He seems to end with racism as a root cause, in the Charlton Heston scene. But not really. What’s underneath the racism? What’s underneath the media selling terror as a product? He gets to that much earlier in the movie, buried in the middle, IIRC, then moves off of it.

    It’s economics! It’s the whole economic system of no-safety-net capitalism, that causes Americans to walk around in terror all the damn time.

    Why are Americans so afraid of everything? Because there is very real fear every day in our lives! If you lose a job, you are destitute. If you miss a few payments, you are homeless. If you miss a paycheck, you are in usurous interest rate territory. If you get sick, you’re in debt for life. If you are trying to go to college, you’re a debt peon forever.

    He explored those specifics more deeply in subsequent movies (Sicko, Capitalism, etc), but really, the point is very clearly obvious by the end of the movie, and then he hides it by moving on to Charlton Heston (maybe because it made the movie more dramatic to end with that confrontation? I dunno).

    Gun nuts are afraid, and his little South-Park-like cartoon points that out beautifully. Of what? Of crime? Why is there so much crime? Income inequality. Why the general terror? Economic terror, expressed as a general fear, which, in some people, attaches as xenophobia or racism. But under it, it’s economic. He buries the lede, I dunno if he did it intentionally or accidentally, but it seems deliberate to me.

    Now, this could be an urubus loop, since so many wingnuts are against the social safety net because of dog-whistle politics, and specifically because it helps black people. So which came first, the no-safety-net-terror or the racism? I don’t know, and neither did Moore, and he seemed to want to point at racism first, but I’m not so sure. Either way, it’s a cycle feeding on itself.

    I still came away from re-watching that with a clear picture of what the problem is: free-racket capitalism, no safety net, basic existential terror every day you get up to go to work. That’s it.

Comments are closed.