Do liberals and conservatives really see the world differently? Maybe it’s more like they feel it differently. Recent research (e.g., Tomkins 1995) has suggested that conservatives and liberals experience different sorts of emotional responses. Specifically, some emotions, like joy and distress, are more associated with people who identify as liberal, while emotions like anger, disgust, and excitement are more commonly felt by conservatives. However, a recent Italian study suggests that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is more likely to be that conservatives avoid emotions while liberals try to experience them.
A random sample of Italian adults, most of whom were not students, were tested for their need for affect, resistance to change, tolerance of inequality, and need for certainty. They were also questioned about their support for various conservative policies, like reducing spending on health care or waging preemptive wars. The authors of study found that respondents who reported a desire to avoid strong emotions – responding “yes” to statements like “I would love to be like Mr. Spock, who is totally logical and experiences little emotion” – were more likely to be resistant to change, to tolerate social inequality, and to support conservative policies.
Among the other predispositions correlated with political conservatism, according to a number of studies, are concern and anxiety about death (e.g., Jost et al. 2003). This raises interesting questions about the relationship of strong emotions, resistance to change, and religious practice, since much religious belief in the West has to do with the afterlife and responses to death. Are some people innately more sensitive to the overwhelming input from emotions, and thus more easily disturbed by major existential crises? Further research into these matters may help us to understand why so many of us disagree on fundamental issues so much of the time, from God to climate change to the death penalty – and maybe even to start a more productive era of dialog.
S.S. Tomkins, “Ideology and Affect.” In Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, edited by E.V. Demos, 109-167. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1995.
J.T. Jost, J. Glaser, A.W. Kruglanski and F.J. Sulloway, "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,"Psychological Bulletin 129 no. 3 (2003): 339–375. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339