The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives? They Smell Different



There are three kinds of people: Conservatives, liberals, and people who make a living describing the differences between the two.

One example is Experian Marketing Services, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, does a rolling survey of different establishments to determine where their patrons stand on the ideological spectrum. The WSJ doesn’t describe the classic example “Costco vs. Sam’s Club” or “Wal-Mart vs. Target” but they do report, “…the supermarket with the most conservative customers is Houston-based Randall’s. There’s no surprise that the most liberal shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.”

One of the more interesting reports appeared in the April 2011 issue of Current Biology under the title “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults”.

They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of a group of liberal and conservative students. They reported that liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, which translates into greater tolerance of uncertainty while conservatives have more sensitivity to fear because they have larger right amygdala.

While this study was based on neuroanatomy, a study with similar conclusions appeared in the June 2014 issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences under the title Differences in Negativity Bias Underlie Variations in Political Ideology.

The author states, “In this article, we argue that one organizing element of the many differences between liberals and conservatives is the nature of their physiological and psychological responses to features of the environment that are negative. Compared with liberals, conservatives tend to register greater physiological responses to such stimuli and also to devote more psychological resources to them….”

The authors make it clear that they’re not making value judgments, but that conservatives’ ability to spot a threat and respond to it may be the reason our species has lasted this long. As Ann Coulter might point out, only a liberal would try to find out if a saber toothed tiger is friendly or not. It was a liberal that discovered that strawberries taste good, but it was also a liberal who was responsible for adding the descriptor “deadly” to nightshade.

The latest addition to this body of scientific research is a study called Assortatative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues, which was published in the American Journal of Political Science.

Up until now, we’ve had theories of mating strategies based on sexual stimulation, the effect of pheromones, and species survival. For example, while it’s true that males are concerned about the physical appearance of their mates, analysis shows that most of the traits that contribute to female beauty can be associated with signs of good health and childbearing potential. Females have similar concerns about the survival of the species, but need have less concern about the long term survival of their mates. That’s why many species allow the males to fight to the death for the right to impregnate the females – the winner is assumed to have the best DNA for the kids to inherit and the losers were never much use anyway.

But this latest paper suggests that what people are smelling around for has less to do with sex than politics:

“…we integrate extant studies of attraction, ideology, and olfaction and explore the possibility that assortation on political attitudes may result, in part, from greater attraction to the scent of those with shared ideology. We conduct a study in which individuals evaluated the body odor of unknown others, observing that individuals are more attracted to their ideological concomitants.”

The researchers enlisted 146 participants and 21 target subjects. The target subjects were chosen from the strength of their political convictions, 10 liberal, 11 conservative.

“ Target participants washed in fragrance-free shampoo and soap and then taped one 2×2 Johnson & Johnson gauze pad to each underarm using Johnson & Johnson paper tape, all of which we provided. Participants wore these pads for 24 hours following a strict protocol that prohibited smoking, drinking, deodorants, perfumes, being around strong odors or candles, animals, eating strong-smelling foods, having sex, or sleeping in a bed with any other people or pets.”

The differences are small, but they’re enough to make a difference in terms of personal attraction.

What they found was that liberals preferred the scent of liberals, conservatives

There’s an anecdote they tell that seems to illustrate the whole thing:

“In one particularly illustrative case, a participant asked the experimenter if she could take one of the vials home with her because she thought it was “the best perfume I ever smelled”; the vial was from a male who shared an ideology similar to the evaluator. She was preceded by another respondent with an ideology opposite to the person who provided the exact same sample; this participant reported that that vial had “gone rancid” and suggested it needed to be replaced. In this way, different participants experienced the exact same stimulus in radically different ways only moments apart.”

They offer no explanation for these observations, except that political harmony might help couples stay together longer.

There is also no obvious explanation for this olfactory phenomenon. There might be something genetic that affects metabolism, or it might be something as simple as diet.

The web site (now owned by eBay) collects information about people and is “designed as a collective intelligence decision-making system that uses decision trees to make decisions based on users’ interest.”

In 2011 they reported on the eating habits of conservatives versus liberals. Among their findings, liberals are 7% more likely to prefer strawberry jelly on their PBJ sandwiches, while conservatives are 19% more likely to choose grape. Liberals like thin crust pizza by a 21% margin, conservatives (33% margin) prefer deep dish. Liberals are 92% more likely to eat fast food rarely or never, while conservatives are 64% more likely to eat fast food a few times a week.

Could that be the secret of the whole thing? Perhaps the secret of the ideologic odor is the residual scent of home cooked coconut curry with lamb and rice. No conservative would cook that – their version of home cooking is tuna casserole or meatloaf.


About Sam Uretsky

Sam is a trained pharmacist and freelance writer with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Michigan. He lives in Long Island, New York, with Kandi the Cocker Spaniel and Minerva, a cat.
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