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The evolution of social conservatism

STOPThe gap between liberals and conservatives may be wider than most people suspect. The differences between them consist not simply of disagreements over how to resolve certain political problems, but possibly also of biological make up. More specifically, research by John A. Terrizzi Jr. (West Virginia University) and colleagues suggests that biological mechanism that evolved to keep people away from disease-ridden things may encourage social conservatism.

What is this “biological mechanism?” Biologists call it the “behaviorial immune system” or BIS. It safeguards the body by disinclining it away from contaminations. For example, when people drink expired milk, or smell feces, or touch something sticky, they have a visceral reaction that makes them disgusted and tells them to leave the offensive area. In doing so, BIS conserves the body’s resources and the body’s life. The body saves resources because it does not need to combat a disease with its immune system, and the body’s own life is saved because it very well may lose that battle against a disease. Not everyone’s BIS has the same sensitivity level. Some people’s BIS cries wolf, producing disgust reactions when the encountered object has no disease and poses no health threat, while other people’s BIS doesn’t cry enough, resulting in frequently getting sick (and/or death).

At least in theory, an active BIS has much overlap with social conservatism. Terrizzi defines “social conservatism” as “as any sociocultural value system that encourages strict adherence to social norms and emphasizes social exclusivity” (although he also, for the sake of this study, explicitly excludes economic conservatism). Social exclusivity, the exclusion of outgroup members, may occur because in evolutionary history foreigners could carry novel pathogens that a local group lacked immunity for. At the same time, BIS may foster ingroup rules and hierarchy because such things promote ingroup cohesion and thus encourage everyone to act in the group’s best interest. From a tribal standpoint, people who act on their own, without regard for their tribe, can put the entire tribe in danger (for example, by contracting and spreading a deadly disease). In short, BIS may protect ingroup members from potentially diseased outgroup members and from ingroup members getting diseased.

To test this hypothesis, Terrizzi compiled data from 24 different studies on the topic (the most recent being from early 2011). Ultimately, he wanted to see if BIS strength could predict social conservatism. He found across the board positive correlations for BIS strength and social conservatism, with the weakest correlations coming from studies that did not filter out economic conservatism. These correlational results do not permit a leap to a causal explanation, but, to quote Terrizzi, “…these data support a model in which the BIS may lead to the adoption of socially conservative value systems which function as a means of encouraging outgroup prejudice and avoidance.” In other words, social conservatism may have evolved as part of a disease-avoidance strategy.

To avoid misunderstanding, social conservatism, not conservatism as a whole, is what correlates with BIS. To equate BIS with, say, the American Republican party, would be to push the results beyond their proper boundaries. In politics, what may be the conservative stance in one country may be a liberal stance in another. To avoid getting tangled in political contingencies, the research here focused on evolutionary mechanisms and social phenomena found across cultures (e.g., cultural values).

Another, perhaps more dangerous, misunderstanding is to reduce all social conservatives’ beliefs to evolutionary adaptations. “Oh, you want tighter immigration control? You must have an overactive BIS.” After all, who knows the evolutionary origins of the liberal’s beliefs? Simply psychologizing away people’s belief does not promote democratic discourse and certainly isn’t an approach to conversation that is very liberal.

For more, see “The behavioral immune system and social conservatism: a meta-analysis” in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.


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