"Republican Brains" And "Liberal Genes" Can't Explain America's About-Face on Gay Marriage
How, our grandchildren will ask, did we come to marriage equality in the United States? And we'll answer, like Hemingway's Mike Campbell: "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." We can grasp Gradually, the speed we Americans are taught to expect (a government of checks and balances and all that). Suddenly, though, is a bit of a shock to our sense of how the world works. That kind of change is a reminder that people aren't nearly as consistent and predictable as we'd like to think. This is a problem, not just for common-sense notions of what it means to be conservative or liberal, but for scientific attempts to explain politics in terms of personality, brain function or genetics. Such theories promote the notion that conservative or liberal approaches to life are derived from innate, unchanging traits. If they're correct, how is it that people can and do change their politics?
The politics-as-personality line is a useful corrective to the rationalist fiction that we consciously choose our political positions by evaluating evidence and reasoning from principles. The new theories grapple with the fact that political behavior isn't completely under conscious control—that it can emerge from aspects of the self of which we are completely unaware. For example, Jonathan Haidt's work on differences between liberal, conservative and libertarian orientation found that liberals have consistently different moral intuitions than do conservatives—liberals valuing fairness and reciprocity far more than conservatives, and conservatives conversely valuing purity and sanctity far more than liberals. Since Haidt argues, for good reason, that these intuitions are not subject to choice or control, he's arguing that people's politics stem at least in part from the way they are built.
You can read a lot of other versions of this claim in most newsfeeds nowadays. For example, this study found that people who with a stronger involuntary startle reflex were more likely to hold that the Bible is literally true and that the Pentagon budget should increase. On the other hand, people who startled less intensely were more likely to support abortion rights, openness to immigration and marriage equality for gay people.
And this paper reports a difference in the way liberals and conservatives respond to the sight of someone looking off to the side—liberals were more likely to follow the gaze, while conservatives were not nearly as influenced by it. And this one found that conservative positions, especially against immigration and outsider groups, correlated with a more fearful disposition. Then there's this paper, which found that liberals and conservatives, performing a task that involved risk, did not use the same brain regions to the same extent (conservatives had more activation in the amygdala, which is involved in circuits that get busy in response to threats and surprises, while liberals had more activity in the left insula, which is thought to be involved in self-monitoring). Journalists like me seem to love this stuff. The latter two studies, for example, were trumpeted by Chris Mooney here, where he wrote that they "go straight at the role of genes and the brain in shaping our views, and even our votes."
The scientists involved in these studies are usually more cautious, noting that they have found correlations, not a causal arrow. They aren't saying that having a robust startle reflex makes you conservative. But some are willing to argue that there's an important alignment between politics and one's fundamental personality. (If they aren't claiming that, after all, then all they're left with is a claim that conservatives and liberals are different, which is trivial.)
Which brings us back to marriage equality. If our political positions depend in some important way on the way we're wired, then what will explain major changes in our political positions? How can it explain an American public that, according to the polls, has gone in seven years from opposing same-sex marriage 70-30 to supporting it by 51-42?
Some political issues pose less of a problem for innate-nature theories because they can be spun in many ways. For example, you can call opposition to fracking "support for our way of life" (purity and sanctity) or "protecting the food chain we all depend upon" (fairness). But same-sex marriage is an emotional issue that touches on people's sense of their own identity—who we are as a nation—and on their definition of what is moral. If you are one of many people who has "evolved" like President Obama on this issue, then you definitely moved. You can't frame it so it looks like you were standing still. If politics is rooted in biology, how is that change possible?
A few weeks ago, at this event, I asked Haidt a version of that question. His answer basically predicted the Portman narrative of a few weeks later. What was causing a change of heart about the marriage issue, he said, was personal experience. With fewer gays hiding in the closet over the past few decades, more and more straight Americans came to see the issue in personal terms. Like Senator Rob Portman, whose mind was changed because his son is gay, people came to view the marriage issue not as an abstract question about society but as an problem facing their friend or classmate or work colleague or cousin or child.
In addition to the genuine personal contact made possible by the hard work of gay activists to make the community visible, there was also the pseudo-personal contact of pop culture: Gay people on TV, in movies, in books and magazines, being sympathetic.
I think Haidt is arguing that fellow-feeling was what changed the emotional calculus for conservatives—that once gay men and lesbians are seen as "people like us," marriage equality is no longer felt as a violation of purity and of authority. It ceases to be the admission of alien "Them" into a tradition that's sacred to "Us." Because gay people are part of "Us" too.
Well, maybe. This point of view certainly seems like it could account for gradual changes in social attitudes. You can imagining such change as a kind of positive feedback loop (more openness about gay life leading to more awareness that it's not alien and weird, leading to more acceptance, leading to more openness, and so on and up).
But there's still the mystery of sudden change, in the midst of which we sit, astonished. Republican senators are lining up to say they are for marriage equality. Rush Limbaugh calls it "inevitable." Something is happening now that is not the gradual shifting of reflexes or amygdala activation or gene expression. It doesn't feel like biology, with its slow and partial squishing and squashing toward change. This feels like a light being switched on (or, if you are on the other side, off). How do we explain that? The science of political behavior, so rich in theories about why people are left or right, needs to pay more attention to why people move left or right.
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.
Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036ae7b8dd661df2d125a3421a0299ba"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bcVruA0AJ-o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."
Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.