TAMPA—Fear serves as a primary motivator of human behavior for good reason—if you do not adequately avoid threats, you cease to be a human being.
Threats, Opportunities, & Survival
For every member of the animal kingdom, survival boils down to a rather simple strategy: maximize opportunities and minimize threats.
Yet as simple as that may seem, the desire for opportunities and the fear of threats varies widely from person to person. These differences lead some people to take far greater risks than others.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these individual differences have been shown by science to correlate with complex social behaviors.
Mapping Biology to Society Quite Indirect
One of the reasons it is easier to be a politician than a scientist or a science writer is because with science, the devil is always in the details. And hashing out the details gets wonky in a hurry.
Take, for instance, political party identification. For any given person, a huge variety of factors affects this identification—including strongly the party identification of those who raised you.
Political parties are social constructs that represent some amalgamation of broad ideology with the particular interests of those in power controlling the parties.
Given this, it should come as no surprise that science is able to better explain identification with an ideology than with a political party.
Further, if you can get a better handle on which aspects of an ideology result in the identification, you can far better explore the factors that correlate with, predict, and follow from that identification.
But that makes for far more boring headline.
Popular Understandings of Human Motivation
Almost everyone reading this will have heard of “fight or flight” or “approach and avoidance.” Those represent straightforward notions, and they are relatively easy to understand.
Each paints two diametrically opposed choices: you go one way or the other. Just like an arrow with two ends.
You have one body, so you can go in only one direction given the laws of physics.
Yet as scientists continued to dig deeper into the mysteries of the human mind—not surprisingly—the underlying reality turned out to be much more complicated.
‘Risky’ Behavior Reveals a Single Arrow’s Flaws
Consider something very benign, which has no serious appeal and poses no serious threat. I have often used the example of a kitchen stool, or, for example, why so few people watch C-SPAN.
Let me try to illustrate this with what I hope will be a straightforward example.
With a single approach/avoid arrow and a very neutral object, there is no motivation to approach or avoid it, so one would fall in the middle of that arrow.
Now consider some “risky” behavior that carries with it both strong appeal and a good deal of risk.
Unprotected sex is one example. Recreational drug use is another.
For recreational drug use, one might be allured by the social conformity of the group at a party and any pleasurable effects of the drug. Concurrently, one might be repelled by health dangers and potential legal consequences.
Here one also is caught in the middle of the approach and avoid arrow, yet it goes without saying that this is an altogether a different experience.
Two Systems Must Produce One Result
As it turns out, scientists have revealed a great deal of evidence that the simple approach/avoid model poorly explains what happens in the human nervous system.
Rather than a single push/pull system, thousands of studies point toward two separate systems: an appetitive system that regulates the desire to approach and an aversive system that regulates the desire to avoid.
The two systems compete for control, and whichever system is most active governs action. When appetitive activation is greatest, the inclination is to approach. When aversive activation is greater, the inclination is to avoid.
Returning to our neutral, boring object, neither system is activated, so there is no motivation to do either.
For the risky situation, both systems are similarly active, so there is, in effect, a tie between them. It is difficult draw.
Note how the simple switch to two competitive systems now clearly illustrates why the neutral and risky situations immediately seem so different despite the fact that they both fall in the middle of the single approach/avoid arrow.
Which System Wins at Any Given Moment
If these two systems, appetitive and aversive, were perpetually deadlocked, you would be perpetually frozen, and that likely does not resemble your personal experience.
Using data, scientists have developed models that suggest that these two systems ramp up differently depending upon the intensity of the situation.
When the world seems fairly calm and safe, the appetitive system enjoys an advantage. This makes a great deal of sense biologically. Without this advantage, no one would explore their world, so they would never find food, water, or potential mates. We call this advantage of the appetitive system positivity offset.
However, if they appetitive system always enjoyed the advantage, you would walk straight into every danger in the world. In short, you would soon be dead.
The check on this is that as the environment becomes more intense, the aversive system ramps up more quickly. If you’re mathematically inclined, one can say that the slope of its activation function is steeper. We call this negativity bias.
Taken together, the positivity offset and negativity bias serve to allow humans and animals to be generally exploratory in nature yet avoid dangers and threats.
The important thing to note that is our research and that of others provides strong evidence of significant individual differences in both positivity offset and negativity bias.
Equally as important, our data showed that the two factors were independent. That is, people with a high negativity bias might have either a low positivity offset.
Examining the Two Factors Together
All other things being equal, those with a high positivity offset will have above average approach tendencies. Even as situations become more intense, these individuals still will feel drawn to approach.
Likewise, all other things being equal, those with a high negativity bias will have above average avoidance tendencies. Even when situations are relatively less intense, these individuals will be inclined to avoid.
Because empirical data showed these dimensions to be relatively independent, it becomes much more explanatory to consider individuals that are high or low in each of the two dimensions.
When divided into “high” or “low” on both negativity bias and positivity offset, we got roughly four equal groups of people. Here is our name for each group and a summary description.
INACTIVES: Individuals with both a low negativity bias and a low positivity offset exhibit the least reaction to the external world. Opportunities do not especially excite them, and risks do not especially frighten them.
RISK TAKERS: Given that our research was designed to help craft better health communication messages, this group was of greatest interest. High in positivity offset, these individuals are driven to experience life, and this drive is only slightly tempered as risk increases. Not surprisingly, these individuals reported the most tobacco, drug, and alcohol use.
RISK AVOIDERS: At the very opposite end of the spectrum, individuals with a low positivity offset and a high negativity bias feel less pull toward opportunities in the world, and they are quick to withdraw when any risk presents itself.
COACTIVES: Finally you have the group with a high positivity offset and a high negativity bias. They charge out into the world seeking experience and opportunity, just like risk takers, but that drive has a serious limit. As soon as the likelihood of risk increases, the opportunity loses its appeal
Physical, Behavioral Differences Among Types
In addition to their likelihood to smoke, drink, or take drugs, individuals falling into these groups exhibited both behavioral and physiological differences. That is, their bodies responded differently to pleasantness and unpleasantness.
For example, when shown a series of pleasant and unpleasant photographs, risk avoiders were especially fast to click past extremely unpleasant photographs.
These differences manifested in their physiology, too. As might be expected, those high in negativity bias exhibited increased levels in multiple physiological changes associated with avoidance.
These physiological differences are crucial to understanding this issue. If you are an individual with high negativity bias, unpleasant things are bad to you precisely because they feel bad to you. Even if often subconscious, these physiological changes associated with flight are registered in the mind, and they affect ongoing cognition.
Restated, this is not a carefully reasoned, logical choice. This is, “This feels bad, and I am getting out of here.”
Bringing It Back to Politics
As I first wrote last week, at the same time we were working on this research designed at designing better health prevention messages, other researchers were examining how these concepts related to underlying political ideology.
As a reminder, political party identification is extremely complicated and only partially affiliated with underlying ideological values.
Variables such as education and socioeconomic status also play large roles.
Furthermore, you are a product of your genes, your environment, and how your environment affected your gene expression. So who you are was never predetermined.
Thus, there almost assuredly never will be physiological measures that associate as strongly with party identification as with basic conservative or liberal ideology.
And as a final qualifier—reminder here that with science, the devil is in the details—this also is not simply asking people to check conservative or liberal. Effective measures ask participants to rate their agreement with several statements, some of which stem from liberal ideology, and some of which stem from conservative ideology.
The words, as labels, are also highly charged, so their use skews responses.
Despite Qualifiers, Correlations Exist
Admittedly that was a long list of qualifiers. Yet understanding that basic concepts should make it at least plausible that those individuals with a greater negativity bias would tend to show greater agreement with these kinds of statements:
- Society works best when people realize the world is dangerous
- Society works best when people take primary responsibility for their welfare
- Society works best when those who break the rules are punished
Accordingly, people who respond with a high level of agreement with these statements, which derive from conservative ideology, are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.
Just as is the case that designing anti-tobacco messages should differ based upon your audience, feal appeals work differently with different audiences.
Fear appeals work best on individuals with a high negativity bias. On the aggregate across a national population of more than 300 million people, individuals with a high negativity bias are going to be overrepresented in the group of people who agree with conservative ideology. And among these people, Republican party identification will be represented in greater numbers.
However, this is far from invariant, and there is no direct causal link. Trying to make predictions for a given individual likely will fare no better than a coin flip. For a national election, however, these trends will manifest themselves in a mass population.