Why are conservatives so scared

Politics & Communication

It is a common cliché that the brains of politicians have to work differently somehow. The "Bild" newspaper allegedly picked one up on the cover. “Gysi shows his brain” was the headline of the tabloid on June 13, 2005. What was seen was the supposed x-ray of Gregor Gysi's skull and a multi-colored computer tomography. The headline gave the newspaper a reply in equally large letters. The left-wing politician had not consented to the publication of his medical records. In addition, the recording was fake, said Gysi.
British neuroscientists might have discovered the fraud in the structure of the brain. In Gysi's real brain, the anterior cingulate gyrus, also called the belt, should be much more pronounced. Associated with this part is the ability to deal with uncertainty and conflict - allegedly a left-wing domain.
The researchers claim to have found out that even the brain is political.
In the study, published in the journal "Current Biology", the scientists examined the brain structures of a group of around a hundred students who previously indicated their political orientation on a scale. When comparing them, they found that the amygdala, the almond kernel, is larger on average in 70 percent of right-wing conservative students than in left-wing liberal participants. The almond kernel plays a key role in the development of fear.

Can that be serious science?

Yes, says Ute Kopp, a neuroscientist at the Berlin Charité. She considers the findings to be reliable. Unusual research approaches are popular in their field, and the study also appeared in a reputable specialist journal. For Kopp, however, the question arises as to what is the cause and what is the effect. Does the size of the Amgydala really determine political sentiment or is it the other way around? It's a bit like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The study gives no answer to this; it also remains open whether the two are related at all. The scholars then call this a pseudo-context, a bad word because it certifies that the scientist has discovered something that does not even exist. “There is always a danger with such comparisons, even if that is not very likely here,” says Kopp. For example, it has been statistically proven that a person's shoe size is positively related to income. The solution to the riddle: men not only earn more than women on average, they also have the bigger feet.
This shadow variable is also feared in psychology, but that does not mean that smart scientists do not dare to come up with explosive theses anyway. One of them is Satoshi Kanazawa. For the developmental psychologist who teaches at the London School of Economics, one thing is certain: Conservatives are dumber than leftists and liberals - at least on average. His thesis is based on an American long-term study with 15,000 participants. In this, those people who described themselves as “very conservative” achieve an intelligence quotient of 95 on average. Their peers who profess to be “very liberal” (progressive according to the German understanding) get 106 IQ points. The researchers observed a similar effect with religion. On average, believers are also less intelligent. Kanazawa, who likes to polarize scientifically and whistles on political correctness, immediately provides the appropriate explanation for his results, in which he tries Charles Darwin. His theory goes like this: The more intelligent people are treading a new path in evolution. More agile in spirit, they are much more likely to dare to take on new tasks that differ from their previous activities and find it easier to rethink their values ​​and lifestyle.

A big chunk of fear

“Whoever stays with the known doesn't have to think twice,” says Detlef Rost. For the intelligence researcher from Marburg, the effects that the provocative Briton describes are not particularly great, but they are undisputed. Other studies have already produced similar results, across national borders. Right-conservative views acted like a kind of catalyst. “Conservatives are more fearful and suspicious than progressives,” says Rost. Extreme political ideologies offer them stability and order.
That would also explain the larger amygdala, by the way.
“But that doesn't mean that the Pope is stupid,” adds Rost. The studies say nothing about individual cases. And there is another limitation, according to Rost. Political orientation is only explained to a very small extent by intelligence. Upbringing and education would have a far greater influence.

Questionable head thing

Heiner Rindermann is one of the few German psychologists who has already done research on the subject himself. The 46-year-old is co-author of the study published in April 2011, which examined the effect of intelligence on political conviction in Brazil. The result is surprising: the researchers refute the Kanazawa hypothesis. According to their data, it is above all the middle class that is the home of the intelligent. "The relationships must be viewed in relation to the prevailing system," explains the professor at Chemnitz University of Technology (see interview).
It was also the combination of Rindermann and Rost who defended the political provocateur Thilo Sarrazin in an article in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. His thoughts on intelligence in the context of minorities, heredity and Islam are technically correct, they summed up. Sarrazin had referred to the studies of both psychologists in several places in the book “Germany abolishes itself” in order to substantiate his thesis about the lack of intelligence of Muslim migrants. “Everything that is true is correct, even if it should not be politically acceptable”, Rindermann defends himself before putting his statement into perspective again in the next sentence. Of course, especially with explosive topics, it is important to emphasize that empirical phenomena are influenced by a large number of factors. An appropriate language should be chosen for any utterance relating to a population group.
And how does it look in Germany now? Who in this country is more intelligent than the political competition, the conservatives, the liberals or the left?
Rindermann doesn't really want to say anything about this because he has no direct data. But then he starts chatting anyway. It is common practice in his discipline to use people's educational level instead of the intelligence quotient. After all, the two are closely related, argues the expert. "And the Pisa study showed that those federal states where the CDU had long provided the prime minister did well." That could point to the Brazil thesis.
He refers to a study by the American Dean Simonton, who, based on speeches and biographies of the US presidents, came to the conclusion that the more intelligent presidents were on average also the more effective. George W. Bush did badly when it came to openness.
"I consider these studies to be highly discriminatory and scientifically questionable," says Matthias Jung, head of the Wahlen research group. Above all, the practice of using the formal educational qualification instead of the intelligence quotient is a thorn in the side of the graduate economist. That is a pseudo-connection. It's the bad word again. According to Jung, the influence of level of education on political orientation is influenced by age. "In Germany there has been an inflation of educational qualifications in the past few decades," explains the election researcher. This means that the older the party's electorate, the more likely it is to find less educated people there. However, one could not say that older voters are less intelligent, only that they went to school at a time when the high school graduation rate was significantly lower than it is today. For the opinion poller, religion continues to play a major role in explaining voter behavior, even if this variable is also becoming less and less important. “In truth, everything is related to everything,” he states soberly.
The social researcher Harald Schoen is somewhat less skeptical. “First of all, that's an empirical finding that I take seriously,” he says diplomatically. In his opinion, however, there were no party-political preferences measured, but psychological tendencies. “It's about how open or rigid someone is in their thinking,” the Bamberg professor analyzes. Characteristics such as curiosity, conscientiousness, openness, self-confidence and tolerance are genetically created personality traits that have been stable for decades. These "Big Five", as they are called in psychology, determine a person's personality. Schoen recently examined its influence on voting behavior. Conscientious people therefore vote more often for the Union, rarely for the Greens. Conversely, open-minded characters would probably not get the idea to vote for the CDU, but rather put their cross with the Greens.
Perhaps, in the end, political belief is more a question of character than of the almond kernel.