Exploring Themes from “Advances in Physiology and Politics: Linking Physiology, Self-Reports, and Cognitive Responses” at #MPSA19

By James Steur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Retro Cartoon Democrat vs. Republican

When I tell friends I’ve taken a class on the relationship between biology and politics, I generally get the same reaction: squinted eyes, a confused face, and a similar question. “How does biology relate to politics? Those topics aren’t related.” To their credit, researching biology and politics together is relatively new in political science, but has gained significant traction in the last twenty years. Most of this traction comes from biological measures complimenting existing measures in political science to answer challenging questions in the field.

Consider, for example, a typical survey. A political scientist is interested in the public’s feelings toward a stigmatized group in the United States. They administer a survey and ask their respondents a traditional feeling thermometer question about the stigmatized group: 0 indicates the coldest feeling and 100 indicates the warmest feeling toward the stigmatized group. Although some respondents may want to answer 0, they know it isn’t socially acceptable to answer this way and give an answer of 80. If many respondents answer 80 on the survey but actually want to answer 0, then the aggregation of all the responses won’t reflect how people truly feel about the group.

Although social desirability bias is not new to self-report surveys, surveys have a hard time overcoming this problem. Physiological tools like electrodermal activity (EDA) can help address limitations like social desirability bias that political science has faced for a long time. The basic idea of EDA is fairly straightforward: once your nervous system experiences arousal, your sweat glands are more active, which increases your skin conductance. The higher your skin conductance, the more aroused you feel. If the researcher measures the respondent’s answer to the feeling thermometer question with EDA, then individuals cannot hide their physiological arousal as they answer the question. This gives the political scientist an unconscious measure of their respondents answer toward the feeling thermometer question and helps address the problem of social desirability bias.

Given the promising direction biology and politics is taking, I wanted to hear about new research in the field. So, I attended a panel titled “Advances in Physiology and Politics: Linking Physiology, Self-Reports, and Cognitive Responses” at this year’s MPSA conference. I wanted to hear about new projects and how this field is developing. I saw some amazing presentations in the panel, and there were four common themes from these discussions that current and future practitioners of the field should recognize.

1). Be Cautious: Physiological Methods Are Relatively New in Political Science
At face value, it sounds appealing to incorporate biological measures into political science research. However, these approaches are still relatively new in the field, so most political scientists won’t be able to help you with your research projects. If you’re wanting to do something related to neuroscience, you’ll most likely need to reach out to a neuroscientist and collaborate on a project to ensure you’re not being overly ambitious with your research project. Relatedly, there is a fairly steep learning curve to learning these different biological approaches. So, be mindful of the time, energy, and work physiological measures can require to answer research questions.

 2). Dealing with Physiological Data is Complicated
In principle, physiological concepts like EDA are relatively straightforward once an expert explains the idea to you. However, there are numerous ways to conduct analysis of physiological data. Many of the presenters and audience members discussed the multitude of ways they could analyze their data to answer their research questions. Importantly, conducting different types of analysis—like including or excluding outliers—results in different conclusions from your data. Before using physiological measures, recognize the complicated nature and analysis of the data you’ll be collecting.

3). Physiological Approaches Can Help Measure Unconscious Human Behavior
Self-report measures on surveys are a helpful tool in measuring conscious attitudes. For instance, suppose a voter consciously knows they don’t support a new tax policy. Generally, a survey question that asks the voter about their support for the tax policy is enough to measure an attitude. However, many stimuli happen outside our conscious awareness. Physiological tools like EDA are helpful at answering research questions about unconscious feelings, behaviors, and attitudes. If your research question is about unconscious aspects of human behavior, physiological measures are one approach to consider.

4). Pre-Analysis Plans Are Helpful: Use Them
Given the multitude of ways to analyze and think about your physiological data, consider doing pre-analysis plans. Although you’ll spend more time preparing how to collect your data and analyze it at the outset of the project, this approach can save you more time (and sanity) in the long run. The more preparation you put into how you collect and analyze your data, the better off you’ll be with your physiological data.

Ultimately, biology and politics is a burgeoning field that has the potential to offer powerful insights into human behavior. This research panel offered exciting new avenues of research and insights into the world of biology and politics that any current and future practitioners would be well served to remember as they progress through their careers.

About the Author: James Steur is a PhD student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging at this year’s MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur.

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