Daniel Fessler, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, led a study in which two sets of subjects read a series of 16 statements, most of which were false, but all of which sounded like they could be true. Some of them focused more on the (fake) benefits of doing something, such as “Exercising on an empty stomach burns more calories,” while others focused on risks, such as, “terrorist attacks in the U.S. have increased since Sept 11, 2001.”
The researchers had the subjects rate how true they believed the statements were. Then, he assessed how “liberal” or “conservative” they were, asking them whether they believed “society works better when people live according to traditional values,” for example, or whether they “agree” with topics like pornography or school prayer, and of course, whether they actually identify as a Republican or Democrat.
There was no difference when it came to the “beneficial” statements—conservatives and liberals were equally likely to believe those. But the researchers found that compared to the liberals, conservative participants were more likely to believe the statements about hazards. And surprisingly, this difference was driven by their views on social issues, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Economic issues, such as a fondness for tax cuts, didn’t make a difference. “Fiscal conservatism is not about traditionalism,” Fessler said. “It’s an accident of American politics that [social and fiscal conservatism] happen to be stuck together” in the same party.
Fessler and his co-authors, UCLA’s Colin Holbrook and Anne Pisor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, write that in general, people tend to believe information about risks more than they do the possibility of benefits. (Insert the standard evolutionary explanation that fleeing from a rustle in the bushes would typically turn out better for our caveman ancestors than brushing it off.) And, things seem more true when they’re about risks rather than benefits. Past studies have shown, for instance, that people of all political viewpoints are more likely to believe that 85 percent of rape attempts are successful than they are to believe that 15 percent of rape attempts are unsuccessful.
But several studies show that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to the possibility of danger than liberals are. That helps explain why conservatives endorse policies that minimize the introduction of new, potentially harmful influences to society, like immigration, gay marriage, or comprehensive sex education. “Conservatives approach the situation from the start with greater reactivity to threat, a greater prior belief to the level of danger in the world, so it is logical for the conservative to take more seriously information about hazards than the liberal does,” Fessler told me.