The fiscal cliff – debt limit faceoff ended with President Obama signing his name during the early morning hours of October 17. But at least one of the major underlying causes—bedrock ideological divisions—hasn’t gone away and will almost certainly manifest itself again in the new year if not before. As we all take a deep breath and await the next clash, it might be useful to reflect on the deeper forces that repeatedly put us in this position.

Tea Party-leaning members of Congress are receiving much of the blame for the sordid recent events, but most of them are merely representing the strongly-felt views of a majority of their constituents. Rather than dismissing the millions of Americans on the far right of the political spectrum as wing-nuts and whackos, it would be more productive to try to understand them.

The liberal stereotype of a Tea Party supporter seems to be someone who is ignorant and not very bright, easily led by blowhards, and whose political thinking is limited to bumper sticker philosophy and sound bite manifesto. Liberals tend to believe that if those on the far right had open, active minds and access to complete information, they would become liberals. We are not so optimistic about changing the minds of Tea Party supporters (In a recent discussion with Ezra Klein, Christopher Parker reaches a similar conclusion, albeit from a different vantage point).

In reality, erroneous as their views may seem to others, many on the distant right are well-informed, put a good deal of reasoned thought into considering the issues, and formulate their own views rather than contracting out the job to Rush Limbaugh. 

A rapidly growing body of empirical research is demonstrating that people at distinct locations on the ideological spectrum are structured very differently from one another, right down to their neurons.  Tea partiers do not merely ignore information or obtain it from the wrong sources; rather, they experience and process the world in a fashion that is different from people on the left or in the center. 

Recent investigations in political psychology do not isolate tea partiers specifically but do document the unique physiological and deep psychological traits of those far to the right of center—a group that overlaps significantly with tea-partiers. Of course, important variation exists from tea-partier to tea-partier but the research documents average differences that are worthy of attention. 

When they encounter a negative situation such as a disgusting image or an unexpected noise, the biological responses of those well to the political right are measurably greater than those with other political beliefs. In addition, when a range of positive and negative images is available for viewing, those on the right are more likely than others to spend their time staring at the negative images (wrecked cars and people eating worms as opposed to beautiful sunsets and happy children).  Multiple studies also detect differences in the brain activation patterns of people on the political right when presented with unexpected, risky, or disgusting situations. They even have an elevated sensitivity to certain tastes and odors.

The distinctiveness of those well to the political right extends beyond the physiological. With regard to personality traits, they report being less empathetic and less open to new experiences but more conscientious and polite. When required to make moral judgments, those on the right are more likely than others to base their decisions on concerns for purity, authority, and the welfare of their in-group.  After exposure to a range of stimuli, individuals on the political right are more likely than liberals and moderates to remember the negative ones. And in information search situations, individuals on the political right are less likely to request new information if that information might be undesirable.

Of course, it is possible to use the information just provided to create an unfavorable composite description of tea partiers, and no doubt many liberals are busy doing just that. Those so inclined, however, should remember that it is just as easy to list the unique physiological and cognitive traits of individuals on the far left in order to create a negative summary image of them. 

Left-of-center liberals should not view tea partiers’ heightened attention to negative stimuli as a character flaw. In many cases, it can quite literally be a life saver. Moreover, there is no indication in the research that those on the right are irrationally fearful of negative situations; only that they are more physiologically responsive and cognitively attentive to them. To those on the left, the right is unduly fixated on threats; to those on the right, the left is dangerously oblivious to them. 

What is to be done? Why not use the new findings to understand rather than bludgeon? 

If you are a liberal or a moderate, you need to recognize that tea partiers do not see what you see, smell what you smell, remember what you remember, taste what you taste, want what you want, love what you love, or think how you think. They experience the world differently than you do and so have distinct ideas about the public policies that would best manage that world.

This hardly means the Tea Party positions should uncritically be deemed correct; only that we should recognize that their positions appear correct to people who experience the world the way they do.  Neither name calling nor, unfortunately, presenting true believers with facts and persuasive arguments is likely to make much difference. Instead, both sides need to imagine how the world looks and feels to the other side. Doing so will not magically end political disputes but is preferable to believing the fairy tale that, if we just keep arguing, shouting, and name calling, at some point soon the tea partiers will see the light. 


Adapted from Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Routledge Books, Sept 2013.

About the Authors

John R. Hibbing, Ph.D.

John R. Hibbing, Ph.D. is the Foundation Regents Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

John R. Alford, Ph.D.

John R. Alford, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Rice University.

Kevin B. Smith, Ph.D.

Kevin B. Smith, Ph.D. is professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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