Can research further political polarization?

New research into body odor recognition adds to research on psychological and brain characteristics distinguishing liberals from conservatives. Despite the socially constructed nature of political orientation and the lack of evidence that the identified differences CAUSE one’s political orientation, partisan media is touting these differences in ways that reify the partisanship that is undermining our ability to solve our collective problems and pursue our shared aspirations. When such research accentuated differences ascribed to race, scientific, sociological, and political reaction properly contextualized it to promote our common welfare. We need to do the same with this research on our political differences.

A Washington Post article reports that “Liberals and Conservatives Sniff Out Like-minded Mates by Body Odor”. I found this headline highly suspect, so I explored further.

I may be more sensitive to this than usual because I have just completed drafting a long article on polarization for the Integral Leadership Review. For more than a decade I’ve become increasingly suspicious of polarizing Left-Right formulations of all kinds, having recognized them as powerful divide-and-conquer strategies that prevent us from (a) facing our shared challenges together because we recognize our share needs and common humanity and (b) addressing them wisely together because we competently integrate our different perspectives and our diverse gifts.

I’m also becoming aware of the ubiquity of polarizing dynamics (what systems pioneer Gregory Bateson called “schismogenesis” – the generation of schisms), many of which magnify tiny differences into profound polarities with divisive and unwarranted implications. The Washington Post article offers an instructively subtle example of this. The study cited takes one tiny piece of a complex dynamic (smell as a factor in mate selection) and, using people representing extremes of liberal/conservative perspective (21 out of 146 people), concludes that ideologically-associated body smell has a “small but significant” influence on mate selection – a conclusion that the Post writer blows up into “Liberals and Conservatives Sniff Out Like-minded Mates by Body Odor”.

The fact that the study itself says

“We do not claim that olfactory mechanisms establish an immediate or proximal cause of mate attraction, the strongest predictor of attraction, or represent the only influence on attraction, or that ideology is the only moderator of odor attraction. Indeed, the influence of smell constitutes only one of thousands of potential factors that operate as part of the complex interaction between local ecology, immediate environment, parenting, culture, physiology, and neurobiology. Nor do we understand the exact basis for these differences in olfactory perception…”

Political orientation is a social construction which, when we deconstruct it, is highly complex and nuanced. In the U.S. there are now more self-identified Independents than either Republicans or Democrats (not to mention dozens of smaller parties). And WITHIN both major parties there are wide differences of opinion despite the constant oppositional harping of politicians and pundits and despite the majoritarian dynamics that demand the suppression of those differences in the name of partisan “unity” to further the goals of power. The assertion of insurmountable ideological differences progressively reduces communication between these socially constructed “two sides” (note the loaded phrase “there are always two sides to every issue” – only two?!) so that, as the alienation proceeds, the polarization becomes a self-fulfilling proposition.

The recent surge of research on physiological and psychological differences between liberals and conservatives (e.g., here) feeds into this without acknowledging the extent to which the research itself arises from our artificially polarized political environment. Because of that environment, such research is likely to attract media attention (like the Washington Post article and references to it arriving in my inbox from numerous sources) and thus further funding for the researchers and others like them. I would love to know, given the way the article overstates and sensationalizes the actual study, whether the researchers were delighted or frustrated with the coverage the Post gave them.

One of the weaknesses I see in this kind of research is that it feeds the idea – sometimes intentionally, sometimes through the assumptions of readers and publicists – that they have identified psychological and physiological CAUSES to someone being liberal or conservative. While I am sure that this is sometimes the case, I question the implication that the psychological and physiological differences that are studied are CAUSES of political orientation. In many cases the fact that someone who is liberal or conservative exhibits certain psychological or physiological characteristics may be the EFFECT of their worldview or of the social and informational environment within which they live because of that worldview. These shape their thought processes and their responses to environmental stimuli which, in turn, may well shape their psychological state and physiological processes and structures. It could easily be a round-robin feedback loop.

As noted in Public Health Watch’s review of research on “negativity bias” in conservatives,

“The researchers mention three major challenges that need to be addressed in future investigations. First, the problem of causal order, ‘Do physiological and broad psychological traits shape political dispositions, or might political dispositions actually shape physiological and broad psychological traits?’ Second, the problem of messiness: that political orientations do not necessarily organize themselves neatly onto a single left/right continuum. Third, the problem of ultimate causes: ‘[I]f negativity bias leads to the adoption of certain personality traits, basic values, moral foundations, and bedrock political principles, what causes variation in negativity bias in the first place?’”

Given the social construction of the emotionally charged concept of “political orientation” and the ascription of physical and psychological characteristics as intrinsic to liberals and conservatives, I find myself reminded of a similar pattern – the debate over race. Although there are physical roots to what we have come to call race, the social baggage that has accumulated around the topic, combined with the centuries-old genetic and cultural mixing of peoples, has made the term increasingly useless except when tapping into or resisting its political and social power. But it is instructive to compare the Left/Right research today with the debates that have raged over research ascribing lower intelligence to blacks compared to whites. The volume, visibility, and sophistication of the protests to that conclusion were a sign of a society moving towards a common humanity.

The delight with which extreme conclusions about our political differences is met today suggests that too many of us still relish our sense of superiority to our fellows – and glory in the battles that naturally follow – than we do the prospect of coming together for our common benefit.

That needs to change. Not just because it is based on false assumptions, but because we won’t survive the crises we’ve created among ourselves if we resist coming together in what are obviously our profoundly shared interests.


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Study: Liberals and Conservatives Sniff Out Like-minded Mates by Body Odor

GAIL SULLIVAN – The Washington Post

Conservatives and liberals do not smell the same to potential mates. According to a study published this month in the American Journal of Political Science, people can literally sniff out ideology – and this may explain why so many couples share political beliefs. Or, as the study’s title says, ‘Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues.”

Researchers led by Brown University political scientist Rose McDermott found that, to a small but significant degree, people prefer the body odor of those who vote as they do.

Previous studies showed long-term mates are more similar when it comes to politics than anything else besides religion. Researchers set out to determine whether this is a purely socially driven phenomenon, or whether biology plays a role.

To test the link between smell and party affiliation, researchers rounded up 146 people aged 18 to 40 from ‘a large city in the northeast United States.” They used a seven-point scale to determine where they fell on the political spectrum. They sent 21 of these -10 liberals and 11 conservatives – home with fragrance-free soap and shampoo and a gauze pad taped to their armpit. The subjects were told not to smoke, drink, use deodorant or perfume, have sex, eat fragrant foods, sleep with people or pets or linger near strong odors.

They returned the stinky armpit pads 24 hours later. Then 125 participants sniffed the stinky pads, taking a break between whiffs to cleanse their nasal palate with the aroma of peppermint oil. The sniffers, who never saw the people whose smells they were evaluating, then rated the attractiveness of each armpit sample on a 1 to 5 scale.

The subjects found the smell of those more ideologically similar to themselves more attractive than those with opposing views.

‘It appears nature stacks the deck to make politically similar partners more attractive to each other in unconscious ways,” the researchers wrote.

Evolution might explain it. ‘Parental similarity in values increases the likelihood that such individuals may be able to say together long enough to raise their children successfully into adulthood,” the researchers wrote.

Or, in other words, you’re more likely to raise children with someone you agree with than someone you don’t. And smell tips you off on your chances of long-term relationship success.

The link between smell and political preference may also be related to how parents transfer their preferences for certain smells to their children. ‘Humans, including mothers, spend most of their time around ideologically similar others,” the researchers wrote. ‘If social attitudes are linked to odor, as the literature suggests, then one mechanism that odor preferences transfer from parents to children may operate through their mother’s choice of mate. In this way, social processes may drive some of the pathways by which individuals come to prefer those whose ideological ‘smell’ matches their own.”

The researchers pointed out that smell isn’t the whole story when it comes to attraction. Many things including conscious choices and other physical urges can influence who we choose to mate with. Smell likely plays a subtle role by affecting hormones and emotional changes.

And of course, some couples defy this science. Exhibit A: James Carville and Mary Matalin.

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The full study is here:

The amount of variation explained by odor attraction is small…. It is important to recognize that olfactory processes operate within complex social dynamics and environmental contexts. This is particularly true of humans who can override or alter the importance of chemical signals for conscious reasons. In humans, attraction remains idiosyncratic and culturally informed, with greater emphasis placed on physical and sociocultural features…. We do not claim that olfactory mechanisms establish an immediate or proximal cause of mate attraction, the strongest predictor of attraction, or represent the only influence on attraction, or that ideology is the only moderator of odor attraction. Indeed, the influence of smell constitutes only one of thousands of potential factors that operate as part of the complex interaction between local ecology, immediate environment, parenting, culture, physiology, and neurobiology. Nor do we understand the exact basis for these differences in olfactory perception; we await future studies that replicate and extend these findings before any definitive relationship is claimed….


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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