There is a new paper in nature that just came out (2020) claiming that liberals and conservatives actually have similar threat responses to aversive images. This contradicts older research from a decade ago that found increased threat responses from those who have right-wing ideologies. During the replication crisis that we are faced with today, there is a bit of a meme about social and psychological studies failing replication. Why isn’t the nature article titled Conservatives No Longer Rate Higher In Threat Sensitivity Than Liberals A Decade Later? The study is going off of the narratives surrounding the replication crisis. There is the notion that liberals dominate the social psychology research field, which is undoubtedly true, but one might wonder if learning social psychology may even convert people to liberalism.
The narratives that ruminate through the replication crisis rhetoric are often over-generalizing many complex problems into an overarching problem. This is because the replication crisis is being viewed from a metascience perspective. We should consider not only metascience problems, but also problems with our philosophical understanding of culture and human psychology.
When we study culture, we should not expect replication across decades unless the culture is actually consistent across such timeframes. Culture evolves. There was a point in which saying the phrase “Bling Bling” correlated with being cool and later, cringey. But! That’s not to say that cultural evolution is the reason for failed replication observed here. This could very well just mean the prior study was insufficient quality (i.e. a metascience problem).
I do actually believe it is possible that the culture has shifted since the last decade.
Let’s explore cultural change and disgust reaction.
Might threat sensitivity be based on tolerance which is based on exposure? Someone who travels the world and has personally tried eating bugs may be less disgusted by seeing someone eat bugs than someone who has not tried eating bugs or spent much time around anyone who does. On the other hand, a liberal vegan might be disgusted by the sight of milk.
Those with a disposition towards nationalism and traditionalism might have a tendency to prefer staying in their own country and even hometown, not to leave their beloved culture. In places where bug-consumption is unheard of these people might be predictably more disgusted because of their tendency to favor their own culture, stay at home, and avoid other places.
On the contrary, those who have extensively explored various cultures may have gotten used to jumping in the cold water of new foods and traditions that oppose their own. The liberals who travel to many cultures might be more open simply because they have been able to adapt to extra-cultural stimuli.
This is a privileged situation for the liberal. To be able to afford travel and exposure to many cultures requires investment. Those who have not traveled should be expected to be less open to other cultures. They have never built a tolerance. Perhaps most people who have no extra-cultural experience will be more conservative and less open simply because there has been no pressure to develop skills in openness. Those who have never traveled might be expected to be more nationalistic while those who travel a lot might develop more empathy for outside nations and peoples. In psychology there is a concept known as the mere-exposure effect that would suggest increased exposure to stimuli leads to liking and tolerance to that stimuli. That’s not to say these things are the only factor driving people’s political dispositions, mind you, but they may be very popular drivers at the least.
In Adultification I briefly outlined how scarcity and abundance psychology could help explain some differences in traits and preferences observed in conservatives and liberals. Namely, scarcity seems to drive conservative preferences while abundance may drive liberal preferences. The root concepts of these political terms even seems to align with scarcity and abundance. It would make sense that a culture of excess and abundance would drive liberal tendencies like sharing resources while a culture of scarcity would drive caution in sharing resources. Those who are a different culture from the mainstream in a region will probably also be liberal, even if they are underprivileged and don’t travel, because they are constantly exposed to extra-cultural ideas. We shall not tangent too much on this point, but you may read the post if this sounds interesting to you.
Alas, this privileged capacity to travel and become cultured is an ability from the past.
Now here is the important part: The internet has given everyone the ability to virtually explore tons of cultures and a plethora of disgusting stimuli, enough for much of humanity to become desensitized to many signals of disgust. We see on the internet: people lighting dogs on fire, people eating human feces, murder events, pigs being buried alive or dumped into ultra massive fire pits, 4chan, and an infinite access to every possible inflammatory and disgusting stimuli one could imagine. Much of these disgusting stimuli even have a greater tendency to go viral due to the outrage and emotions the content elicits.
The rise in popularity of the internet in the last decade has shown us a drastic shift in culture. It shouldn’t be a surprise that major cultural trends don’t replicate in these studies.
Just to remark on my own personal experience. I am highly empathetic to animals, but I’ve seen so much horrific violence towards animals in videos online now that I actually feel no sense of horror when observing these videos anymore. It is clear that one can become desensitized to disgust signals and those who are exploring them will obviously be the ones to become desensitized.
So perhaps the internet has actually raised everyone’s disgust tolerance by simple mere-exposure.
Does the internet facilitate open-mindedness?
The classic conservative meme might be someone from a small American southern rural town who remains innocent, pure, Christian who hasn’t been tainted by the hedonistic, city-dwelling liberal party-goer who partakes in illegal drugs or the fruit of knowledge. The conservative may not travel too much, likes their homeland, focuses on maintaining the traditions of their local culture and has little influence from immigrant culture and the culture of large liberal metropolitan cities that bring many global influences due to being a travel and trade hub, such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. The internet has brought us a virtual metropolitan space with constant global and national cultural influence, straight out of the minds of Silicon Valley.
Consider how internet culture has changed people’s relationship with sexuality. Many taboo things have become more normalized and accepted in sex-positive culture. In the past, this kind of sexual openness might have been reserved for cults. First, the internet empowered LGBTQ movements possibly aiding in people who identify as LGBTQ by providing networking, leading to a cultural shift of LGBTQ being more socially accepted and gaining legal rights. Then, the normalization and de-stigmatization of LGBTQ has lead to a rise in heterosexual anal sex. This is even an example of something many people may have previously found disgusting, but through mere-exposure to the LGBTQ community, tolerance was developed and even later a curiosity.
Here is an example for how. The Guardian reported on a survey that suggests that the internet has made sex workers feel safer. Imagine that the survey simply asked how safe the sex workers felt doing their job and they gave the survey to random sex workers before the internet and then again after the internet emerged. You would find that the survey didn’t replicate. Instead of viewing this as a failure to replicate, one could view it (as it truly was in the actual survey) a dynamic change of attitude that occurred over time.
Truly A Crisis
Can studies that involve a constantly evolving culture as a variable ever truly be replicated?
This study in nature is not a replication as they didn’t control for the rise of the internet and its’ implications on disgust sensitivity. The replication crisis is not truly a crisis of replication, it is a crisis of attempting to study a topic that ceases to exist with each passing moment and each viral meme that emerges into pop culture. It is a philosophical crisis of the nature of social psychology and cultural studies.
The people who were studied in the original study practically don’t exist anymore. They are an outdated cultural species and the times have changed.
Special thanks to the two patrons, Abhishaike Mahajan and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist!
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If you are interested in other ways that the internet warps our culture, check out eColonialism.