Researchers diagnose conservatism, but is there a cure?


Thanks to learned scientists, I’ve discovered that I suffer from a mental problem afflicting millions of Americans.

It’s not really a disease. It’s more like a peculiarity, one that irritates polite society yet may be corrected with surgery to the frontal lobe. What is this deviancy?

John Kass2

Conservatism.

For many years now, conservatives have secretly feared the day when science would identify us as aberrant, or to use the vernacular, abby-normal.

Sadly, that time has come, in the pages of the liberal-leaning but well-written Mother Jones magazine, and a story about yet another attempt by scientists to chronicle the pathology of conservatism.

According to research from professor John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conservatives and liberals react differently to certain stimuli. Hibbing and his team have determined that conservatives dwell on negatives and have a stronger “disgust sensitivity” than do liberals.

This problem, researchers believe, could be genetic.

“So, if you have a negativity bias, and you focus more on the aversive and disgusting, then the world seems more threatening to you,” says the Mother Jones piece. “And thus, policies like supporting a stronger military, or being tougher on immigration, might feel very natural.”

What fascinated me most weren’t the conclusions as much as the machine Hibbing strapped to the heads of his human subjects to measure their responses to stimuli.

Some might mistake it for a medieval device used to torture heretics. But it is remarkably similar to the contraption Stanley Kubrick’s “scientists” strapped to the head of a sadistic British thug in the now-forgotten masterpiece of scientific rationalism and acute political correction, “A Clockwork Orange.”

In that story, the thug underwent aversion therapy. He was gentled by science. Can conservatives and their rambunctious libertarian siblings be far behind?

The article offered a link to four photographs Hibbing used in his research. One was of pretty young girls in ballerina costumes. Liberals mostly stared at that one. But conservatives couldn’t take their abby-normal eyes off the really disgusting stuff.

Disgusting black flies crawling on a juicy cob of just-eaten corn; an open wound oozing in disgusting fashion on a human hand; and a disgusting pile of moist dog poop on summer grass.

“It all adds up, according to Hibbing, to what he calls a ‘negativity bias’ on the right. Conservatives, Hibbing’s research suggests, go through the world more attentive to negative, threatening and disgusting stimuli — and then they adopt tough, defensive and aversive ideologies to match that perceived reality,” Mother Jones reported.

And so, centuries of philosophical argument are wiped out by sociobiologists.

One group had to be dead wrong. And sadly, now I know which one, the group often informed by the Bible and the Constitution, texts that are considered increasingly irrelevant, if not downright unreasonable and bothersome, these days.

Conservatives, perhaps foolishly, are the glass-is-half-empty people, always worrying about the Russians and China and what will happen to the Republic when the money runs out. As if.

And conservatives are anxious about the craziest things. For example, conservatives worry about Americans who use loud and chirpy voices to insist that they “have nothing to hide” and really don’t mind the National Security Agency snooping on every aspect of their lives.

Liberals focus on happy thoughts. One day it’s ballerinas, another day it could be the prospect of Congress doubling the federal income tax, or President Barack Obama being sworn in for a fifth term.

For example, in 2002, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley (no bias there), studied the “psychology of conservatism.” According to a university press release, they found “the core” of conservatism is a “resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality.”

Does that mean conservatives are drooling racists? Or does it mean that they support the quaint American notion of meritocracy, which by definition leads to unequal outcomes?

Does it even matter anymore?

Berkeley researchers found that some of the more common psychological factors linked to conservatism included “fear and aggression; dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance” and “terror management.”

Sadly, the Berkeley study took place a few years before President Obama elevated the use of killer drones to an art form, or used “fear and aggression” in class wars to win elections, or before we knew that the NSA can read our very thoughts as we type them. But still.

What frosts me is that for years I’ve foolishly operated under the delusion that the big-government types — both establishment Democrats (big social programs) and establishment Republicans (big war machine) — were mentally challenged.

Boy, was I wrong. Sorry. My bad.

I also thought liberals were abby-normal because of the way many trumpeted diversity, as long as diversity involved skin pigments or genitalia, not thought.

But now I realize that I’m the one with the problem.

Scientists would never be so vulgar as to declare conservatives to be in the wrong. Right and wrong aren’t scientific.

But by their contraptions and experiments, they’ve proven in their own unbiased minds that conservatives are overwhelmingly negative folks who can’t help but focus on disgusting things.

We’re like dangerous broken toys hiding under the bed. If we’re not stopped, we just might crawl out from among the dust clumps and upset the sleeping children.

Happily, it’s only a matter of a final corrective being administered in the name of scientific reason. In the old days they used a hammer and ice pick and called it a lobotomy. But I hope modern science provides a pill.

A happy, positive pill for happy, positive thoughts for happy, positive Americans.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is: jskass@tribune.com, and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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