Easily Startled? It Could Reflect Your Politics

Your stance on key political issues may be directly related to how jumpy you are, a small but compelling new study suggests.

In the study, released Thursday in the journal Science, Rice University professor of political science John Alford and his colleagues studied 46 subjects with strong political beliefs. They subjected these people to startling stimuli then compared responses with their stated viewpoints on key political issues.

Those subjects who were the most startled by the unexpected or disturbing stimuli were also the ones who were most likely to favor such issues as increased defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

The people who were less startled by the stimuli, which included such things as a spider crawling across the face of a terrified person or loud, unexpected noises, tended to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control.

"We were probably as startled as the people who saw the picture of the spider to find that this works, and it is quite accurate," Alford says. "These are relatively straightforward tests, and the results are very crisp."

Alford says that this new study adds to past research which suggests that 30 to 40 percent of our notions and perceptions could have biological roots, adding, "The idea that there could be a biological component to our political ideology is fascinating."

The study is not the first to tie certain patterns of brain response to potential voting behavior. Marco Iacoboni, a professor of neurology at UCLA, conducted a study last year in which he used a functional MRI to peer into the brains of those presented with political imagery and see how their brain response matched up with their political leanings.

"This is a really clever study," Iacoboni says. "This research shows that all of our decisions are really rooted in biology. It's not just the rational thought of the brain that we use to reach decisions, but also our emotional ones."

He says part of the beauty of this most recent research is that it looks at a simple biological response -- the threshold of being upset by an external stimulus -- in relation to political philosophy.

Other brain researchers urge caution in interpreting the results of the relatively small study -- particularly at a time when many are scrutinizing what our brain may be doing behind our backs.

"I think we currently live in an environment of 'neuro-anything,'" says Joy Hirsch, professor of functional neuroradiology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

"Almost since functional imaging has sort of hit the press, you can't open an issue of the Science Times without finding an article about our brains in love, or neuro-economics, or our brains and politics," she says. "We have begun to think about complex behaviors in terms of the neurophysical machinery that drives them."

She adds that the study only shows a correlation -- which means it is impossible to tell yet whether being easily startled actually brings about what is known as protective decision-making, or if it works the other way around. It is a point with which Iacoboni agrees.

"It could also be the other way around," he says. "It is hard to tell it apart."

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