Thomas Jefferson was a smart dude. And in one of his letters to John Adams, dated June 27, 1813, Jefferson made an observation about the nature of politics that science is only now, two centuries later, beginning to confirm. “The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time,” wrote Jefferson. “The terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history,” he later added. “They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.”
Tories were the British conservatives of Jefferson’s day, and Whigs were the British liberals. What Jefferson was saying, then, was that whether you call yourself a Whig or a Tory has as much to do with your psychology or disposition as it has to do with your ideas. At the same time, Jefferson was also suggesting that there’s something pretty fundamental and basic about Whigs (liberals) and Tories (conservatives), such that the two basic political factions seem to appear again and again in the world, and have for “all time.”
…This is not fringe science: One of Hibbing’s pioneering papers on the physiology of ideology was published in none other than the top-tier journal Science in 2008. It found that political partisans on the left and the right differ significantly in their bodily responses to threatening stimuli. For example, startle reflexes after hearing a loud noise were stronger in conservatives. And after being shown a variety of threatening images (“a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” according to the study), conservatives also exhibited greater skin conductance—a moistening of the sweat glands that indicates arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body’s fight-or-flight response.
The results of Hibbing’s study were clear: The conservatives tended to focus their eyes much more rapidly on the negative or aversive images, and also to dwell on them for a lot longer. The authors therefore concluded that based on results like these, “those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently.”
“Maybe you’ve had this experience, watching a political debate with somebody who disagrees with you,” says Hibbing. “And you discuss it afterwards. And it’s like, ‘Did we watch the same debate?’ And in some respects, you didn’t. And I think that’s what this research indicates.”