Violence vs Empathy, Indifference vs Unhappiness

“But always— do not forget this, Winston— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler.  be the thrill of victory,the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.”
~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Below is the list of just recent events:

Attack on MoveOn worker is just the latest example of right-wing violence

Which, of course, is directly related to recent rhetoric:

Conservative media figures have history of violent rhetoric

If you think this is just biased reporting, just consider the research showing the psychological basis of ideological differences:

Brains of liberals, conservatives may work differently, study finds

The differences between liberals and conservatives may run deeper than how they feel about welfare reform or the progress of the Iraq war: Researchers reported Sunday that their brains may actually work differently.

In a study likely to raise the hackles of some conservatives, scientists at New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found that a specific region of the brain’s cortex is more sensitive in people who consider themselves liberals than in self-declared conservatives.

The brain region in question helps people shift gears when their usual response would be inappropriate, supporting the notion that liberals are more flexible in their thinking.

“Say you drive home from work the same way every day, but one day there’s a detour and you need to override your autopilot,” said NYU psychologist David Amodio. “Most people function just fine. But there’s a little variability in how sensitive people are to the cue that they need to change their current course.”

The work, to be reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, grew out of decades of previous research suggesting that political orientation is linked to certain personality traits or styles of thinking. A review of that research published in 2003 found that conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed-minded, less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to new experiences. Some of the traits associated with conservatives in that review were decidedly unflattering, including fear, aggression and tolerance of inequality. That evoked outrage from conservative pundits.

The latest study showed “there are two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style,” said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected with the latest research.

Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it’s possible the liberals in the recent study appeared more flexible than the conservatives because the population was skewed.

“We’re more likely to find extreme conservatives in the U.S. than extreme liberals,” she said.

Study: calm people are liberal, skittish are conservative

Calm people tend to be liberals, while those who react strongly to sudden noises and threatening images tend to be political conservatives, says a study in the U.S. journal Science today.

“Individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control,” said the study conducted by U.S. researchers from Rice University in Texas, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Illinois, and the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioural Genetics.

Strong beliefs

“Individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favour defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq war,” the authors write.

Study: Liberals are smarter and Conservatives are bullies

The jury may be out on whether conservatives are less intelligent than liberals, but there’s evidence that they may be physically stronger. Last year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencespublished a fascinating paper by Aaron Sell, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The authors measured the strength of 343 students using weight-lifting machines at a gym. The participating students completed questionnaires designed to measure, among other things, their proneness to anger, their history of fighting and their fondness for aggression as a way to solve both individual and geopolitical problems.

Sell, Tooby and Cosmides found that men (but not women) with the most physical strength were the most likely to feel entitled to good treatment, anger easily, view themselves as successful in winning conflicts and believe in physical force as a tool for resolving interpersonal and international conflicts. Women who thought of themselves as pretty showed the same pattern of greater aggression. All of which means that if you are a liberal who believes you’re smarter than conservatives, you probably shouldn’t bring that up around them. You might not like them when they’re angry.

I wanted to make one last correlation.

Conservatives are less accepting of those who are different and more prone to aggressive behavior. The opposite side of this is that research has also found that social conflict (such as during wars) causes people (including liberals) to become more conservative. So, it is in the interest of conservatives in power to increase social stress (Cold War, culture war, war on drugs, war on terrorism, etc) which will ensure they’re staying in power and ensure the increase of power they already have. This is why the American public and even Democratic politicians were more accepting after 9/11 of allowing the Bush administration to start wars based on deceptive propaganda and to create unconstitutional laws such as the Patriot Act. Fear makes people conformist and xenophobic.

The decades of culture war has also been a part of the general conflict including race war and class war. In some ways, liberals have won in that Americans are more accepting of differences than they used to be. However, conservatives are winning in that they’ve maintained an atmosphere of conflict, polarization and fear. The working class used to be more liberal, but they’ve become increasingly conservative. This is interesting because conservative economic policies have increased wealth disparity. Conservatives are more accepting of wealth disparity and so it doesn’t bother them that the poor are becoming poorer as the rich are becoming richer. Liberals, on the other hand, are very bothered by this. The sadly ironic part is that conservative policies that create polarization also cause people to become more conservative which leads to further polarization. It’s a vicious cycle.

This also can be seen in terms of social problems. As wealth disparity grows, so do social problems increase (including violence, teen pregnancies, obesity, and psychiatric illness). And, as the social problems increase, people become more afraid and more conservative.

The most sad part is that, in the face of all this, compassionate liberals naturally respond by being less happy. Liberals feel more more empathetically. It bothers liberals to see others suffer, but conservatives just don’t notice. Conservatives feel happy even while society falls into conflict.

Napier and Tost conducted a series of surveys on political attitudes of Americans and citizens of 8 Western countries, using previously collected data. Their results affirmed the “conservatives are happy, liberals are mad” findings of previous polls, but income, education, religion and other demographic variables couldn’t explain the happiness gap.

However, when the authors instead grouped people by their “rationalisation of inequality,” the differences between conservatives and liberals dissolved. Republican or Democrat, people not bothered by social or economic disparities tend to be happy.

This trend held for non-Americans, as well. Right-wingers in the Czech Republic, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were all happier than liberals, on average. And the poorer – and presumably more unequal – a country, the greater the happiness divide.

One may quibble with their methods. Respondents rated their political beliefs on a 1 to 10 scale, liberal to conservative, and I suspect the political beliefs of even the most doctrinaire Scandinavian conservatives would give Rush Limbaugh the willies. But the authors’ comparisons were within countries, where relative differences still stand.

Napier and Post attempt to seal their case with one final point: the happiness divide has grown as income inequality in the US has surged. Between 1974 and 2006, the so-called Gini coefficient has document a growing divide between haves and have-nots.

The number varies between 0 and 1, with zero representing total income parity and 1 representing a total inequality. The lowest (.24) belong to Denmark, while the highest (.71) to Namibia.

Let me explain one last point.

I’m not just attacking conservatives. I’m of the opinion that a functioning democracy requires a diversity of views. I agree with some conservatives. My motivation in posting this kind of thing is that the conservative movement that is in power right now doesn’t represent all conservatives, much less all Americans (when Palin speaks of ‘Real Americans’, she isn’t speaking about the majority). I’ve noticed that a number of critics of the Republican party are former Republicans who left the party as the party left them. Some moderate conservatives are fighting to get their movement back and some liberty Republicans are fighting to get their party back. I support them.

I’ve heard various theories about why the conservative movement became radicalized. The reasons aren’t what I’m focused on here. I’m just pointing out that radicalization has happened. Conservative traits aren’t inherently bad, but any psychological trait when taken to the extreme can be problematic. Liberal traits are just as problematic when radicalized, but for various reasons radical liberals presently have very little power in American politics and aren’t represented to any significant degree in the mainstream media. The Democratic party isn’t a liberal party. It’s a big tent party that includes a spectrum, but overall it’s moderate and centrist. If you look at the mainstream politicians and pundits who are fear-mongering, the most obvious thing is that they’re mostly conservatives. For the most part, there are few if any people on the left equivalent to the Tea Party candidates or Fox News pundits (although, the polarization from the right does seem to be causing a polarized backlash on the left which will just lead to further polarization on the right… liberals can’t win no matter what they do).

Anyway, the problem isn’t polarization in the public. It seems that the data shows the public is mostly in the middle of the spectrum even as the spectrum itself is pushed to the extremes. Where we see polarization is with those who are the leaders of the conservative movement and in with those in power in general. The problem is that those in power don’t represent the public. As for the general public, they’ve become increasingly liberal, but you wouldn’t know that by watching the mainstream media.

By the way, I just noticed some videos about a gene discovered that predisposes people to become liberals especially when they had many friends in high school… nature plus nurture:

Some other interesting links:

7 thoughts on “Violence vs Empathy, Indifference vs Unhappiness

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