Our story starts in 2008, when a group of researchers published an article (here it is without a paywall) that found political conservatives have stronger physiological reactions to threatening images than liberals do. The article was published in Science, which is one of the most prestigious general science journals around. It’s the kind of journal that can make a career in academia.
It was a path-breaking and provocative study. For decades, political scientists and psychologists have tried to understand the psychological roots of ideological differences. The piece published in Science offered some clues as to why liberals and conservatives differ in their worldviews. Perhaps it has to do with how the brain is wired, the researchers suggested—specifically, perhaps it’s because conservatives’ brains are more attuned to threats than liberals’. It was an exciting finding, it helped usher in a new wave of psychophysiological work in the study of politics, and it generated extensive coverage in popular media. In 2018, 10 years after the publication of the study, the findings were featured on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.
Fast forward to 2014. All four of us were studying the physiological basis of political attitudes, two of us in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Bakker and Schumacher at the University of Amsterdam), and two of us in Philadelphia (Arceneaux and Gothreau at Temple University). We had raised funds to create labs with expensive equipment for measuring physiological reactions, because we were excited by the possibilities that the 2008 research opened for us.