Political orientation affects the way people perceive size and strength of threats and how effectively they can be defeated
Building upon previous research, a new UCLA-led study found that people who hold more conservative beliefs are more likely to perceive foreigners such as Syrian refugees as threatening, yet visualize them as physically smaller. Conservatives appear to imagine Syrian refugees as smaller because they believe forceful action against terrorism will prevail.
UCLA anthropology research scientist Colin Holbrook calls this a “Gulliver effect,” inspired by the Jonathan Swift novel.
“Comparatively, we find liberals more hesitant to endorse military action, not just from a moral perspective, but because they lack confidence that fighting will work,’” Holbrook said. “Liberals in our sample tend to say that it will take years or decades for military action to be effective, if ever.”
The study, led by Holbrook, upheld previous research that revealed differences in how political orientation predicts the way people perceive threatening situations or individuals. Their findings were published today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“This is the first study to ask the question ‘how does political orientation affect the way people visualize physical size and strength?” Holbrook said. “We’re tapping into how the mind uses concepts of body size and strength to represent who is more likely to win in a violent conflict. We call this a ‘Gulliver effect’ because conservatives’ confidence in using force to thwart terrorism was closely related to imagining Syrian refugees as relatively small and weak, not unlike Gulliver’s perception of the Lilliputians.”
In the first study, researchers asked 500 paid respondents in the United States to react to text descriptions of two individuals: a Syrian refugee seeking entry to the U.S., and an unemployed American looking for a job. Respondents then estimated each person by height, overall body size and muscularity.
To determine the political orientation of study participants, the researchers asked them to agree or disagree with a list of 25 topics presented in random order, about half of which were conservative in nature and the others liberal.
The imagined physical size and muscularity of the characters, and the answers to the political topic questions, were compared to responses about the use of military intervention to combat terrorism.
Participants responded to questions about how many refugees they believe are attempting to enter the country and to rate how likely they think the United States is to suffer a terrorist attack in the next 12 months. They also rated their confidence in the efficacy of U.S. military tactics to combat ISIS, based on how likely they think it is the jihadist militant group will be destroyed and how long it would take to do that. Participants also rated on a scale from 1 to 100 whether they agree the U.S. should send large-scale ground forces or use nuclear weapons against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Holbrook and his fellow researchers said they thought it was especially relevant in the current political climate to consider the implications of this theory for understanding hostile reactions to Syrian refugees. They conducted two separate studies, one that included respondents from the United States, and one focused on people living in Spain — a country that houses more actual Syrian refugees than the United States, and borders other nations that have taken in a large amount of Syrian refugees.
“The findings were the same in both countries,” Holbrook said. “This indicates that the links we observed between political orientation and perceptions of people viewed as possible threats may apply globally. The fact that we obtained a nearly identical pattern of observations in Spain is striking given that the refugee crisis is so much more pressing in Europe, and because we conducted the study shortly after a terrorist attack had occurred in nearby Brussels. For the Spanish participants, the refugee issue probably holds greater real-world relevance.”
It comes down to the way our brains have evolved to make fight-or-flight decisions, Holbrook said. The human brain appears to possess a capacity to assess the fighting ability posed by another individual or situation by subconsciously creating an internal image of its physical formidability. If we spontaneously imagine the opponent as relatively small, we may be more inclined to fight. If we imagine the opponent as large, we’re less inclined to believe a fight would be successful.
“Our ability to think about war on the global stage appears partially derived from an ancient mechanism for thinking about interpersonal conflict in terms of bodily size and strength,” Holbrook said.
Liberal and conservative political perspectives are genetically heritable and represented in every known society, Holbrook noted. This may be because both orientations play valuable roles in human culture—with each bearing real costs and benefits when it comes to identifying and responding to threats.
The conservative intuition to see certain out-groups as not only more threatening, but also as more readily defeated, can be beneficial in some circumstances, Holbrook said. The liberal tendency to perceive less threat, to view fighting as ineffective, and to prefer negotiation may be beneficial in other circumstances.
“As a result, evolution seems to have preserved a balance between both conservative and liberal psychological outlooks,” Holbrook said. “Today, in our time, we may be witnessing some of the consequences of this evolved political psychology in shaping the world’s responses to the plight of millions of refugees.”