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Monday, February 29, 2016

Research: Does Conservative Negativism Repress Rational Thought?

Research: Does Conservative Negativism
Repress Rational Thought?

Conservatives are fond of identifying “enemies” and using strong negative words and images to describe them. I wrote about this in the essay Conservatives Depending on Emotional Words to Persuade where excerpts of a GOP memo from Newt Gingrich suggest words to describe “our opponents” including: failure, pathetic, lie, liberal, betray, hypocrisy, radical, etc.

Psychologists have already discovered that emotions affect higher brain functions including attention, memory, vision and motor control. Now, researchers are discovering that negative language inhibits the lower level retrieval of knowledge and subconscious information processing. A Bangor University study initially expected that negative emotional words would be arousing and stimulate reasoning capacity. Instead, they found that negative words suppressed certain cognitive responses.

I suggest that combining these two observations may show that repeatedly describing liberals [or another race, or immigrants, or non-believers] in negative terms may reduce the audiences’ ability to reason critically about the information they are receiving.


What do you think? Is this why so many people report that it seems futile to try to reason with conservatives? Does this imply that liberals should also decide to deliberately target the limbic (emotional) centers of any given audience’s brain? Would that be unethical, too cynical for words, and against our “religion of reason?”

I don’t believe that I’m rushing out on a wild tangent here. If you’ve been reading my essays, you’ll recognize a greater context. I’ve reviewed Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians where decades of research establish conservative modes of thought. I’ve described research into stages of human development that explain how we all, at some time, embrace a conservative worldview, based on the accepted beliefs of our group.

Some individuals, but not all, break loose from their limiting group identification through individual struggles to understand a broader context for meaning. These people escape the trap of defending “individual freedom” while they continue to conform to the teachings of their limited scope of associates. They discover the true meaning of individual freedom in being able to conceive of others also exercising those freedoms independently.

My point is that there is a growing body of evidence to explain the difference in reasoning styles between those with narrow vs. broader views – those who are comfortable accepting the militant and negative dogma of splinter-group authorities and those who have the courage to work hard enough to understand a larger view of how things are.

Negativity about others and fear of change need not be locks on our doors of understanding and opportunity. Get positive and have faith in the goodness of your potential and that of the world around you. If your way of thinking isn’t working for you so much anymore, undertake the struggle to break out of your chains and see a wider world. There is always more. But, you’ll never see it if you’re content to be like just another puppy crawling over your litter-mates in a box.


Reference: Bangor University, School of Psychology, Centre for Research on Bilingualism; Journal of Neuroscience (May 9, 2012; 32(19):6485– 6489, 6485)

David Satterlee