Areas of inquiry once reserved for historians and social scientists are now studied by neuroscientists, and among the most fascinating is cultural conflict.
Science alone won't provide the answers, but it can offer new insights into how social behavior reflects -- and perhaps even shapes -- basic human biology.
An upcoming issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B features a collection of new studies on the biology of conflict. On the following pages, Wired looks at the findings.
Research has already shown that, compared to liberals, conservatives display heightened responses to threatening images. Michael Dodd of the University of Nebraska wanted to explore this in finer detail: He showed 46 left- or right-leaning Nebraskans a series of images alternately disgusting (spiders on faces, open wounds) and appealing (smiling children, cute rabbits.) Dodd's team found that conservatives reacted most strongly to negative images, and liberals most strongly to positive photographs.
Then he showed them pictures of well-known politicians. The same patterns held: Conservatives displayed more distaste than liberals for politicians they disliked, while liberals felt more positive than conservatives about politicians they liked. Given these and other findings, wrote Dodd's team, "those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently."
That sounds pessimistic, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a healthy reminder that people with whom we disagree aren't stupid or irrational; they just have different perspectives.
Keim, Brandon. 2012. "Human Nature and the Neurobiology of Conflict". Wired. Posted: January 26, 2012. Available online: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/biology-of-conflict/