Can Physically Leaning Left or Right Change Your Politics?

Research explores how your body influences your political preferences.

Posted Feb 04, 2019

puppet-3543246_1920 Pixabay Septimiu
Source: puppet-3543246_1920 Pixabay Septimiu

On May 5, 1789, the French Revolution began with a meeting of the legislative assembly. No one knows exactly why, but during that gathering those who sided with the King—the nobility—sat to his right. Instead, those who opposed the King—the middle class and peasants—sat to his left. From that point on, politics has been defined by this right-left division.

Over two hundred years later, we still use spatial terms when describing politics. We refer to conservatives as “right-wing” and “right-leaning” and liberals as “left-wing” and “left-leaning.” And what about moderates? We use terms like “middle-of-the-road” and “centrist” to associate them with the middle.

So clearly this right-left metaphor for politics has been around for quite a while. But why?

Chances are, this metaphor persisted all this time because we find it helpful. In general, metaphors are beneficial because they take something complex and abstract (like political ideology) and connect it with something simple and concrete (like right and left sides).

But metaphors do more than just help us comprehend things. They actually change the way we think about a concept on an unconscious level. For example, the spatial metaphor of up and down has often been used in religious texts when talking about divine (up) versus evil (down). As a result, people process the word “god” faster when it’s presented in their upper visual field. And they process “devil” faster when it’s in their lower visual field. The point is, once a spatial metaphor becomes ingrained in our brain, it alters how we process and respond to information in ways we don’t even realize.

So back to the topic of politics. What this means is that on an unconscious level, our brains automatically associate conservative things with the right side and liberal things with our left side.

To see this in action, let’s look at a study conducted by a team of international researchers. In it, participants were seated in front of a computer screen and shown words or political party acronyms one at a time. Some of the words and acronyms were associated with the liberal party, some with the conservative party, and some were neutral (government, elections poll). For each trial, participants had to press one button if the word was liberal and another button if it was conservative (and no button if it was neutral).

Pretty simple so far—but here’s where the researchers got crafty. Sometimes the word appeared on the right side of the screen; other times that same word appeared on the left. So the question of interest was this: will people be quicker to respond to right-wing party words when they appear on the right side rather than the left? And will they be quicker to respond to left-wing party words when they appear on the left side rather than the right?

Here’s what they found: Right-leaning words were identified a lot faster when they appeared on the right side of the screen. Similarly, left-leaning words were identified a lot faster when they appeared on the left side of the screen. As for the neutral words, they were identified equally fast regardless of what side they appeared.

So, it seems that conservative groups make us orient to the right side of our body and liberal groups make us orient to left side of our body. That’s somewhat interesting, but let’s turn up the heat and ask an even more intriguing question: Could we reverse the direction of this relationship? Could making people orient to the right or left side of their body make them more politically conservative or liberal?

That is exactly what two Princeton researchers attempted to find out. In one of their studies, they presented participants with an image of an apple that moved up and down on the screen. All respondents had to do was click on the apple whenever it popped up. Now for half of them, the apple always appeared somewhere on the left side of the screen. For the rest, it always appeared somewhere on the right. Finally, they were asked: “To what extent do you agree with Democrats on political issues?”

In the end, the people who were oriented to the left agreed more with Democrats than the people oriented to the right. Importantly, this happened regardless of the whether the respondent was a Democrat or Republican. So both Red Brain conservatives and Blue Brain liberals become more left-leaning in their politics when their body is forced to adopt a left orientation.

But the researchers didn’t stop there. They figured out other creative ways to alter people’s physical orientation. In a second study, they had people hold a handgrip (a device you squeeze to build your forearm muscles) in their right hand or left hand before answering the politics question. People who were forced to squeeze with their left hand agreed more with Democrats than those forced to squeeze with their right.

And in their most innovative study, the researchers got really sneaky and took some of the wheels off the participants’ desk chair so it tiled to the left or the right (see photo). Those who sat in a left-leaning chair responded to the politics question in a left-leaning way, meaning that they were more in agreement with Democrats, than those who sat in a right-leaning chair.

So when our body leans left, so too does our mind.

Now this doesn’t mean that a staunch Republican will suddenly switch their allegiances because their chair is wobbly. Or that a staunch Democrat will change their vote because they have a pebble in their right shoe. But it does suggest that small changes in physical orientation can nudge someone’s political preferences in one direction or the other. And sometimes, a nudge is all it takes to topple the scales in favor of one candidate or another.

Given all this, it seems possible that something as simple as which side of the screen a candidate appears during a commercial or which side of the ballot their name appears could have a notable impact on election results. Now if we could just strategically slip some folded papers under the chair legs in Congress, then maybe we could get things moving!

To learn more about the psychology of politics, check out my “Red Brain, Blue Brain” blog at www.redbrainbluebrain.com