Fear is a driving factor in many of our life choices. Using that fear against people is something that conservatives have honed and fine-tuned to keep their base in line and fearful of seemingly everything. They’re coming for your guns! They’re giving all your tax money to Welfare Queens! The Muslims are going to blow up our schools! One thing that makes it very easy to turn an ordinarily liberal thinking individual into a conservative thinking individual — just scare them.
In a new book that was released Tuesday, “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” professor John Bargh states:
Research has shown that you can make liberals more conservative by threatening them and making them somewhat afraid.
Perhaps one of the most notable shifts in public thinking came after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. People who felt safe on United States soil no longer felt safe. Multiple studies have concluded that fear changes the way we look at things, but nothing painted us a clearer and brighter picture of this phenomenon than the events of 9/11. After the twin towers fell, President George W. Bush found increasing support from liberal sources, boosting his approval ratings and clearing the path for his requested increases in military spending. People just wanted to feel safe again.
A study conducted in 2003 found that political conservatism gives the illusion of reducing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty and is sometimes embraced by people to avoid change. Conservatism helps to explain inequality, giving it order and justification and people feel more “safe” with conservative war-mongering behavior that paints everyone (including liberals) as a potential enemy.
Beyond just psychological changes, researchers have documented physical changes which occur when fear is a factor. In a study of the right amygdalas, which is the area of the brain that deals with the expression of fear and processing things that we fear, researchers discovered that people identifying as conservative generally have larger and more active right amygdalas. A study of individual MRI results, researchers were able to determine that conservatives had more grey matter volume and more activity in their right amygdalas while engaging in risk-taking activities (they were more frightened) than liberals in the same study.
While the shift from liberal to conservative was easy to discern, shifting back from conservative to more liberal thinking was more difficult to reproduce in a lab setting. To accomplish the results discussed in Bargh’s book, they used a simple, but seemingly effective method of conquering the fear that causes the conservative shift.
One “group of participants [was told] to imagine that they’d been granted a superpower by a magic genie and were suddenly as invincible as Superman — bullets bounced off them, fire couldn’t scorch their skin, and ‘a fall from a cliff wouldn’t hurt at all.’” The control group was told to imagine that they could fly.
When asked to consider political views while concentrating on their superpowers, many with previously conservative views changed slightly toward more liberal views. The shift was not noted in financial matters though. Those that entered the experiment with already liberal views didn’t change their opinions at all. An interesting note is that the control group, those told to imagine they could fly, also experienced no change in political attitude.
The over-simplified results of the research were to determine that when people feel safe, their politics can change, at least temporarily. As we have seen since even before the 9/11 attacks, Republicans have been using this fear to keep their base controlled and leaning conservatively. As stated earlier, using arguments like “They’re coming for your guns!” or creating fear of Muslims because of Islamic terror acts has long been a Republican tactic. The longer they keep their voting base afraid of their shadows, the longer they will remain in control.
When applied to politics, the psychology of fear will consistently send people to the polls to vote against their own interests. Until that changes, the way conservatives think will continue to make no sense to those of us who aren’t afraid of our own shadows.