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Member since: Sun Dec 25, 2016, 04:42 AM
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(Warning: Includes the F-word, a lot)

How Authoritarianism Short-Circuits the Lizard Brain


The tendency of Republicans both to respond to and sow fear and panic has been with us for decades. Yet during the coronavirus pandemic, to anyone who bothers to look, we are seeing a new and strangely unremarked twist to their behavior, a development that gives valuable — and chilling — insight into Republican psychology.

During the early 1950s, Republicans stampeded themselves and much of the country into a state of hysteria over homegrown Communist subversion. That there were a few Communist spies is undeniable, but Republicans vastly overestimated their number. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the ringleader of the GOP vigilantes, was unable to uncover a single one, settling for ruining the reputations of innocent Americans.

Over the years, conservatives (I use the term interchangeably with Republicans) have swooned over various moral panics, such as the evergreen fear that gays will convert their children into perverts, or the imagined war against Christmas that secular humanists supposedly wage with the implacable ferocity of the Stalingrad campaign. Since 9/11, panic over Muslims has been a hardy perennial: the GOP faithful are forever on guard lest their city council should impose Sharia law on hapless Christians. Never mind that for the last decade, domestic right-wing terrorist incidents have greatly outpaced incidents committed by Muslims.

There is a reason for these inappropriately fearful responses that is related to brain physiology. Strongly conservative individuals literally have different brains than the rest of the population. MRI tests have shown that different centers of the brain light up more robustly in these persons than others, and their amygdala – the so-called “lizard brain” that controls the threat response – is larger than average. To what extent this characteristic is an inherited tendency and to what extent socialization alters the highly adaptable components of the brain is debatable.

Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives' Political Attitudes


1. Conservatives tend to focus on the negative.

In a 2012 study, liberal and conservative participants were shown collages of negative and positive images on a computer screen while their eye movements were recorded. While liberals were quicker to look at pleasant images, like a happy child or a cute bunny rabbit, conservatives tended to behave oppositely. They’d first inspect threatening and disturbing pictures—things like car wrecks, spiders on faces, and open wounds crawling with maggots—and would also tend to dwell on them for longer....

2. Conservatives have a stronger physiological response to threats.

A 2008 study published in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological response to startling noises and graphic images. This adds to a growing body of research that indicates a hypersensitivity to threat—a hallmark of anxiety. But why exactly would those who scare more easily tend to support conservative views?...

3. Conservatives fear new experiences.

A 2008 study cataloged items found in the bedrooms of college students and saw that while liberals owned more books and travel-related items, conservatives had more things that kept order in their lives, like calendars and cleaning supplies....

4. Conservatives’ brains are more reactive to fear.

Using MRI, scientists from University College London have found that students who identify themselves as conservatives have a larger amygdala than self-described liberals. This brain structure is involved in emotion processing, and it's especially reactive to fearful stimuli. It is possible that an oversized amygdala could create a heightened sensitivity that may cause one to habitually overreact to anything that appears to be a potential threat, whether it actually is one or not. This disproportionate fear response could explain how, for example, Bush’s administration was able to gather wide public support amongst conservatives for invading Iraq. Maybe if they said the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” enough times, it wouldn’t matter whether they existed or not....

This explains a lot about why it's so difficult to discuss issues with die-hard conservatives.

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