Remember That Awful Scene? Conservatives Sure Do

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New research provides evidence that those on the political right are more likely to recall negative imagery.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

When Donald Trump proclaimed early in his presidential campaign that “This country is a hellhole,” many of us looked at each other and asked: What is he talking about? The economy is getting better, we’re not in a major war, and more people have health insurance than ever before. What’s so horrible?

But Trump was clearly speaking for a sizable minority of Americans. Blue-collar workers faced with bleak employment prospects understandably resonate to this rhetoric, but in Republican primaries, his bleak portrait of America also rings true to more than a few educated, middle-class voters. Why?

While fear of the nation’s changing racial demographics is surely a factor, newly published research reveals another form of deep-seated bias that likely plays a role.

It reports that, when people search their memory banks — which, after all, is how we make emotional sense of our lives, and our world — those on the political right are more likely to remember negative scenes than positive ones.

A research team led by University of Nebraska psychologist Mark Mills reports this dynamic is not found among political liberals. What’s more, it finds such “negativity bias” increases with higher levels of conservatism.

When people search their memory banks, those on the political right are more likely to remember negative scenes than positive ones.

“Our results show that negatively valenced emotional stimuli appear to have a more privileged status in memory the more conservative one is,” Mills and his colleagues write in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. Their findings suggest “emotional memory plays a role in the development of political ideology.”

It has long been established that conservatives tend to pay closer attention than liberals to negative imagery, such as angry faces. This helps explain why conservatives are more likely to view the world as a scary place that demands a defensive response. Hence, their greater support for military action, and a tendency to give police the benefit of the doubt.

But is this an in-the-moment phenomenon, or does it influence what one remembers? In an attempt to find out, the researchers conducted an experiment featuring 64 University of Nebraska undergraduates.

They began by giving their views on 20 “hot button” issues and revealing their political ideology. They then viewed a series of 144 color photographs, each of which was flashed on a screen for precisely two seconds.

Immediately afterwards, the participants viewed 240 such scenes, “half of which were presented during the study phase, and half of which were novel.” They were instructed to press one key if the photo was a repeat from the first part of the experiment, and a different key if it was new.

The images ranged from positive (baby animals, beautiful landscapes) to negative (snakes, spiders, and people or animals being mistreated), while other were emotionally neutral (interior scenes, furniture).

“Negative scenes were more likely to be remembered than positive scenes,” the researchers write, “though this was true only for political conservatives. The effect was sizable, explaining 45 percent of the variance across subjects in the effect of emotion.”

This was a small study, and university students are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole. This research, however, is consistent with a series of previous studies finding liberals and conservatives perceive the world differently.

It suggests this difference in perception impacts our memories, leaving us with different views of whether the world is largely threatening or basically benign. And that points us in one ideological direction or another.

The famously liberal Barbra Streisand once told us that “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” True for her, no doubt, but for her political opponents? Not so much.