Your Politics Stink
By Mike SeccombeJune 14, 2012
People on the left and right of politics see the world differently, literally. They also hear and smell it differently. It’s not opinion, it’s science. And, as several studies show, it’s why the left has dibs on most of the good jokes.
About a year ago they gathered in Boston, this group of 146 volunteer subjects, all of reproductive age, and were sorted by the researchers on the basis of their politics.
Then 21 of them, the ones assessed as having the most strongly held progressive or conservative views, were asked to put sweat pads under their armpits.
Well, it was actually a little more complicated than that. To quote from the academic paper produced afterwards, "participants washed in fragrance-free shampoo and soap and then taped one 2 x 2 Johnson & Johnson gauze pad to each underarm using Johnson & Johnson paper tape ... Participants wore these pads for 24 hours following a strict protocol which prohibited smoking, drinking, deodorants, perfumes, being around strong odours or candles, animals, eating strong-smelling foods or sleeping in a bed with any other sentient beings".
I could go on quoting the methodology, but you get the point: this experiment was rigorous, as one might expect of a collaboration by serious researchers from three prestigious universities: Harvard, Brown and Pennsylvania State.
Still, the object of the exercise sounds silly, on the face of it. These academics were trying to determine whether ideology had a smell.
So, after 24 hours, the subjects returned their gauze pads, which were put in sterile jars and frozen. A week later they were thawed out and the other 125 volunteers sniffed them.
And guess what? Ideology does have a smell. Conservatives smell different from liberals (using the word "liberal" in the small "l" American sense, meaning progressive). To quote again from the study:
"As participants go up the scale in the conservative nature of their orientation, they found the odour of fellow conservatives more attractive and the smell of liberals less attractive. Similarly, more liberal evaluators were more likely to find the smell of other liberals more pleasing."
As tends to be the case with most academic papers, this one has a title that does not exactly sing: Assortative Mating on Ideology Operates Through Olfactory Cues.
But Peter Hatemi, one of the three academics who conducted it, tagged it much more accessibly when he emailed a copy to The Global Mail. The message was headed SMELLS LIKE A LIBERAL. In subsequent conversation, Hatemi, whose eclectic academic qualifications are in political science, genetics, psychology and psychiatry, insisted the research was absolutely serious. Furthermore, he has since replicated the findings in a similar study — though with a somewhat smaller group of subjects — in Australia. (He works not only with Penn State but also the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.) And he has previously done work down to the genomic level, which suggested, tentatively, there are actual, biological differences behind it all.
The finding that smell identifies us politically makes sense, he says, for it has long been shown that smells — pheromones — play a role in our selection of mates. And research also has shown that one of the strongest indicators of compatibility in partnering is conservatism/liberalism. In fact it is one of the two top indicators of compatibility.
"The only one that comes close [in terms of correlation] is religion," says Hatemi.
WE'LL GET BACK TO POLITICAL SMELLS shortly, but first a little on the genesis of this story, and then a delicious digression.
The idea was to explore why the left of politics seems to have the best jokes, and why conservatives seem to have a particular problem with satire. But research sometimes takes you in unexpected directions. And so to the digression.
Hatemi currently is finalising another paper on how our politics affect our sex lives, using data from a very large study done here in Australia almost two decades ago, which asked respondents detailed questions about their sexual practices, and also asked them their party affiliation. Some of its findings are a hoot.
First, supporters of the National Party, the most socially conservative group, engaged in the least amount of oral and anal sex. No real surprise there.
Second, right-of-centre women reported a more satisfying, though less adventurous sex life overall than more liberal women. Perhaps, he suggests, that's because liberals, being more adventure-seeking, "have to keep doing more things to reach that [level of satisfaction], whereas conservatives are satisfied with what they've got".
And third, those who had the least sex, by a large margin, were the Australian Democrats. Given that political affiliation tends to be passed down over generations, Hatemi laughingly suggests the party disappeared because it failed to produce new little Democrats.
So just how all-pervasive are the differences between those of us on the left and on the right?
Hatemi points to other research which shows that people not only smell different but literally see and hear the world differently, too, according with their conservative/liberal perspectives.
Shown the same image, for example, people will focus on different aspects of it and react to it differently, he says.
"We have a paper from a couple of years ago where violent and frightening images and peaceful images were shown," says Hatemi. "People who were more socially conservative … were much more physiologically sensitive and had stronger sympathetic nervous system reaction to threatening images."
Other research has found conservatives have a stronger "startle reflex" in response to sudden, loud noises.
It goes even further than that. Have you ever thought someone on the other side of the political fence looked at you funnily? Well, a study reported in Science Dailyfound significant difference in what they called "gaze cues" — that is, the tendency to shift your attention in the same direction as another person's. "Liberals responded strongly to the prompts, consistently moving their attention in the direction suggested to them by a face on a computer screen," they found.
Conservatives did not.
With modern tools you can actually see the difference in the ways liberals and conservatives process information.
"They can hear the same story, but neuro-imaging shows different parts of the brain tend to be more or less activated," says Hatemi.
These are physiological things, but they are reflected in psychological/moral studies. Conservatives are more inclined to feel disgust and are generally more fearful. Liberals are more inclined to seek new experiences.
Says Hatemi: "People on the social left tend to be more open to new experiences. People on the economic left tend to be more neurotic. People on the social right tend to be more closed-minded, more focused on out-groups, more authoritarian, more militant, punitive and retribution-minded."
At a moral level, as University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt explains in his recent book The Righteous Mind, the left cares for the weak and suspects the strong, and elevates fairness and liberty. The right gives less emphasis to these values, and elevates loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.
Truly, as the political saying goes, the left fall in love and the right fall in line.
Political Nature Versus Nurture
THIS GOES A LONG WAY towards explaining a lot about politics. Like why, for example, John Howard was never secure in his Prime Ministership until he found himself in Washington on the day terrorists struck. Nothing mobilises the right like a threat — terrorists, asylum seekers, et cetera.
Equally, it is no wonder American liberals fell so hard for the exciting novelty of Barack Obama, a black man campaigning on hope.
Once again we could go on, and on, but you get the point.
Just about any way you measure it, psychologically, physiologically or genetically, conservatives — particularly social conservatives — and liberals are different at very deep levels.
"I've really come to the position that left/right orientations are a top-down effect. It's the way we look at the world, our basic cognition, our perception," says Hatemi.
This does not mean our political affiliations are predetermined and permanently fixed. "We have a general disposition ... but that's a trait-level thing and what we encounter [in] our environment is going to modify that, because humans are supremely adaptive."
"So you may be a moderate, pacific person, but if somebody rams two planes into one of your national symbols, you're going to want to bomb the hell out of them," he says.
"And someone might be more or less socially liberal, but there is a particular issue they have specific experience with, and they're completely on the right on that."
In general, though, people are not very amenable to having their basic ideology changed. And this seems to be a universal thing. To date he's looked at Sweden, the US, Australia, Hungary and Denmark, and found "basically the same genetic mechanisms were operating to differentiate between left and right in all these countries."
Of course, the cultural context was different in each place; the US is generally more culturally conservative than Sweden, for example.
So context is important. But, as he puts it: "Culture sets the mean, your genetics and disposition set where you fall in that mean."
The indications are that ideology operates to a large extent in a realm that is not very open to persuasion; people tend to assimilate experiences to suit their world view.
And this can be a bit dispiriting for those who are in the business of trying to mould opinions, as The New York Times's Nickholas D. Kristof noted in a column a few months back.
"After all," he wrote, "it's extra challenging to try to change people's minds if they may not even share our hard-wiring."
I Am Colbert Nation (And So Can You!)
ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE "wrong" on the issues beyond redemption, because of their physiological inability to help themselves?
Well, not entirely. As Hatemi's excellent article goes on to note, you can try to reframe your arguments in terms the other side understands, emphasising values they adhere to
But it's very hard to get through to people, as the following example shows.
A few years back, three academics from Ohio State University in the United States published a scholarly piece about humour, with an unusually brief and catchy title, The Irony of Satire.
The subtitle of their study was longer, but also intriguing: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.
Now, for those of you who don't know about Stephen Colbert, he is a popular American TV satirist. His shtick is to sit behind a desk, looking for all the world like one of the right-wing pundits with which America abounds, and pretend to be like them.
Colbert parodies the political right but never lets on by breaking character, which is why the researchers chose to study people's reaction to him. As the researchers wrote:
"In essence, deadpan satire forces the message recipients to not only judge the intended meaning of the message, but also evaluate the sincerity of the source. Often the satirist assumes that the audience will correctly interpret the satirist's poker-faced delivery and comprehend the deep sarcasm being used."
So they got 332 subjects to view a three-minute clip of Colbert, and then sought their responses.
Well, the conservatives in the group did not see the deep sarcasm. They thought Colbert was one of them. While they found him amusing, at a deep level they didn't get the joke at all. They took the interview as confirmation of the pre-existing opinions on the subject (the Iraq war). And these were not apparently naive people. The participants were all enrolled in undergraduate communication courses.
The whole study makes for quite accessible reading, if you skip the statistical analyses in the middle.
Now, it's true that we all are prone to interpreting information in ways that conform to our biases. That's well-documented in psychology, it's called confirmation bias.
But this was something else. This seemed to indicate that conservatives are either (a) not so bright, or (b) have problems processing humour.
Let's leave aside the first possibility, if only for the sake of keeping this piece light. But there is strong evidence for the latter. It's a phenomenon which has been noticed by many comedians — and also by an American academic, Associate Professor Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University who has just finished writing a book on the subject, A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor.
She interviewed three dozen performers and writers, and found — no real surprise — "most comedians really are quite leftist".
She suggests a couple of reasons.
"The most important element is that people on the left, by their nature, have an anti-establishmentarianism about them.
"Conservatism, as the word implies, is about maintaining the status quo and respecting the power structure. And what is satire but making fun of the power structure, poking holes in the decisions that are made, the incongruities, the inconsistencies?"
The other thing she notes is that conservatives, by their nature, take things more seriously, something which is consistent with the findings of psychological studies showing they are more dogmatic and less open to novelty.
"If you are conservative and believe that abortion is murder and gays have no right to be married, you can't make fun of that, because it is so threatening to you. On the left you can make fun of things, because issues don't threaten you as much."
She adds that out on the other fringe, the far left, "they also have no sense of humour whatsoever; they see someone driving a Hummer and they just start crying".
What Conservative Thinks Comedy Is a Career?
PSYCHOLOGY ALSO PLAYS TO a selection bias in who becomes a comic, Dagnes suggests. Conservatives pursue safe options, and a performer's life is not a safe option. Thus most comedic performers are pre-disposed to the left even before they conceive their first gag.
The other thing she noted was that even though they satirise the right, most leftie comedians look for the humour before they look for a the ideological point.
"They are all performers first, not political people. If you are an activist, you begin with trying to convince someone you're right. If you are an entertainer, you begin with wanting people to laugh."
She cites the example of Jon Stewart, whose material is heavily political. "He always says, 'I'm a comedian, that's all I am,'" she says.
In contrast, Dagnes points to an attempt by Fox News a couple of years ago to do a right-wing version of Jon Stewart's long-running, wildly popular Daily Show. The Fox show, imaginatively titled The Half-Hour News Hour, ran for 15 very unfunny episodes.
Having interviewed that program's executive producer and other writers and performers about it, she realised Fox's approach was to start with the intention of making a political point, rather than making a joke. "And the beginning of a joke portends the ending of a joke. If you're trying to make a point, you have less of a chance of being funny," says Dagnes.
Of course, there are funny people on the political right, although most of them tend to be libertarian in outlook, rather than true conservatives. Dagnes cites P.J. O'Rourke. An Australian example might be Joe Hildebrand. The obvious Australian example of conservative humour is Barry Humphries, but he clearly starts with the joke. And he remains very much the exception.
At a psychological level, much might be traced back to one word Dagnes used: "incongruity".
Conservatives just don't care much for incongruity or ambiguity. There is a wealth of psychological evidence showing that, and showing what they do value is order, structure and closure. Conservatives like definite answers.
And what is humour but the process of taking someone along a structured path to an unexpected place? What is satire, but taking someone along a structured path to an indefinite place?
As that study of conservative reactions to The Colbert Report noted, "Because high levels of cognitive effort are required to determine the satirist's intention and true meaning, it makes satirical uptake a complicated process".
So, what are we to make of all this, other than the obvious lesson that conservatives tend not to get the joke?
Well, the academics who studied Colbert took a couple of points.
First was the fact that political satire might not affect people in the way that it has historically been assumed to. Its perceived power as a propaganda weapon has often seen attempts to ban or constrain it; maybe it has been over-rated.
Second was the suggestion that instead of benefiting one side or other of the argument, it merely helped polarise issues, with negative effects for democracy. In other words, it was not just the right-wing ranters like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck who were making Americans increasingly hostile to one another; it was also the leftie funnymen. Or, in the Australian context, it's not just Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, it's also the Chaser boys and Shaun Micallef.
Perhaps there's a third lesson. Liberals should rethink their prejudice against conservatives, for the same reason as conservatives should rethink their prejudice against gay people.
They can't help it; they were born that way.