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Are You Shocked by the Political Parties?

Our skin's electrical response shows politics really matters to some people.

Dragon Images
Source: Dragon Images

In my early years as a "political operative" running political campaigns and legislative offices I lived on an emotional roller coaster. It was like playing a game that I desperately had to win. Imagine the elation you’ve felt after beating your hated arch rival and, damn it, the misery you’ve felt after losing to that same arch jerk.

That’s what it was like for me, except I could cycle back and forth through these emotions on an almost hourly basis. It was exhausting. And I didn’t need any machine to tell me how fired up I was getting.

But scientists want to objectively measure people’s responses to politics, and one tool that researchers have started to use is skin conductance response (SCR) a.k.a. electrodermal response.

BIOPAC Systems, Inc.,, used with permission
Skin conductance response electrodes.
Source: BIOPAC Systems, Inc.,, used with permission

Our skin conducts electricity, and when we become psychologically or physiologically aroused from an internal or external stimulus like fear, anger, a surprise, or sexual feelings, our skin conducts electricity even better due to increased sweating. The electrical response, which is mostly automatic and not in our conscious control, takes 1-3 seconds to appear and can last much longer. It's usually measured using two electrodes attached to the subject’s fingers.

Wikimedia Commons
Skin Conductance Response 60-second sample signal.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Several studies have shown that political conservatives versus liberals have greater electrodermal responses to negative and aversive images in general as well as some politicized issues like gay marriage, capital punishment, defense spending, foreign aid, gun control, and immigration.

In recent research published by PLOS ONE, political scientists Michael Bang Petersen, Ann Giessing, and Jesper Nielsen of Aarhus University in Denmark found that some people do indeed have a “shocking” response to partisan cues. More specifically, they found people have a physiological response to party logos. And, interestingly, the folks who have the strongest physiological responses are likely to demonstrate knee-jerk, partisan support for or opposition to proposed government policies, while those with more moderate physiological responses are not.


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For more information:
Petersen, Giessing, & Nielsen. (2014). Physiological responses and partisan bias: Beyond self-reported measures of party identification. PloS one, 10(5), e0126922-e0126922.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at

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