How Ebola Makes Conservatives More Conservative

Conservatives react more strongly to negative things—like disease.

Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Oct. 15, 2014, 1 a.m.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the first per­son to die of Ebola in the United States, came to this coun­try by air. He did not cross the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. And yet, for some con­ser­vat­ive politi­cians, the ar­rival of Ebola here has piqued con­cerns about the se­cur­ity of the south­ern bor­der.

“If people are com­ing through nor­mal chan­nels [with Ebola],” Sen­ate can­did­ate Scott Brown said re­cently in a ra­dio in­ter­view, “can you ima­gine what they can do through our por­ous bor­ders?” Oth­er politi­cians are like-minded, call­ing for the out­right clos­ure of the bor­der.

The scen­ario that Ebola enters the U.S. through Mex­ico is not out­right im­possible. It’s just un­likely con­sid­er­ing the facts. There have been no re­por­ted cases of Ebola in Mex­ico or Cent­ral Amer­ica. Con­ceiv­ably, it could be pos­sible for someone in­fec­ted with Ebola to enter the United States in a car from Mex­ico. But for that to hap­pen right now, the Ebola car­ri­er would have had to spend some time in West Africa be­fore head­ing to Mex­ico. Then, the per­son would have to travel to the U.S. be­fore the dis­ease’s symp­toms kick in, which can take two to 21 days after ex­pos­ure.

So why are con­ser­vat­ives so con­cerned about the south­ern bor­der in the wake of Ebola? Psy­cho­logy has an an­swer: Ebola is mak­ing con­ser­vat­ives more con­ser­vat­ive.

Let’s step back.

It’s likely that hu­man­ity has evolved to have people with lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive minds in any giv­en so­ci­ety. Ac­cord­ing to mount­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al re­search, lib­er­als tend to be open to new ex­per­i­ences, while con­ser­vat­ives seek to pro­tect what they already have. Of­ten these mind-sets res­ult in polit­ic­al clashes. But the ten­sion between lib­er­al brains and con­ser­vat­ive brains makes sense for sur­viv­al. There are times when it’s im­port­ant to dis­cov­er new things, and there are times when it’s im­port­ant to avoid dangers. The ten­sion between those two strategies is what has fueled hu­man polit­ic­al con­flict for mil­len­nia as groups ar­gue over how a so­ci­ety should be run. But it has also kept us alive.

Through this evol­u­tion­ary lens, con­ser­vat­ism is a strategy to pro­tect a so­ci­ety from harm from both out­siders and dis­eases. Ebola hits this ex­act con­ser­vat­ive nerve—it’s a deadly dis­ease from a for­eign coun­try. Ebola is ac­tiv­at­ing all the evol­u­tion­ary alarms of the con­ser­vat­ive mind.

John Hi­b­bing, a lead­ing re­search­er in polit­ic­al physiology, ex­plains it like this: “What we’ve found is pretty clear and con­sist­ent—that con­ser­vat­ives tend to have more re­ac­tion to neg­at­ive things. We like to see not just if they re­port in a sur­vey-type format wheth­er they are bothered by that, but ac­tu­ally physiolo­gic­ally if there has been a change.”

In his ex­per­i­ments, Hi­b­bing of­ten at­taches elec­trodes to lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive par­ti­cipants’ skin and then shows them dis­turb­ing im­ages, such as a man eat­ing a hand­ful of worms. In these tests, con­ser­vat­ives sweat more (i.e., have a stronger gut re­ac­tion) in re­sponse to the dis­gust­ing stim­u­lus. And when Hi­b­bing hooks par­ti­cipants up to eye-track­ing ma­chines, he finds con­ser­vat­ives mon­it­or more closely the things that make them squirm. So they are more read­ily pro­voked and more vi­gil­ant. These dif­fer­ences between lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives are likely deep seated in the brain: sci­ent­ists have found that con­ser­vat­ives tend to have lar­ger amy­g­dala, a re­gion of the brain in­volved in fear pro­cessing, than lib­er­als do.

And when people be­come fear­ful, they’re more likely put dis­tance between their group and oth­ers. “Since out-group mem­bers are more likely to carry patho­gens to which mem­bers of the in-group have not yet de­veloped im­munity, avoid­ance of out-groups can be ad­apt­ive when the threat of the dis­ease is sa­li­ent,” UCLA re­search­ers wrote in a 2006 pa­per.

In that pa­per, the re­search­ers found that when par­ti­cipants were primed to think about dis­ease, they “in­creased their pref­er­ence for the Amer­ic­an over the for­eign­er and in­creased their at­trac­tion to the Amer­ic­an.” They be­came less re­cept­ive to out­siders, just like cer­tain politi­cians seem to be do­ing right now in the wake of Ebola.

“It doesn’t mean that con­ser­vat­ives are deeply flawed,” Hi­b­bing said. “From an evol­u­tion­ary point of view, re­spond­ing to neg­at­ive things in the en­vir­on­ment makes a lot of sense. You need to be aware of them.”

Reena Flores contributed to this article.
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