New research suggests that conservatives and liberals use their brains differently, particularly in how they assess danger. That would help explain why they seem to just talk past each other on issues such as gun control. Maybe it also explains why people have different reactions to violent movies and TV programs. Is there a biological imperative — let's call it the CBS gene — to watch shows about serial killers?
Two studies released this winter make a connection between fear and political ideology. The gist is that "conservatives have more intense physical reactions to threatening stimuli than liberals." (See "Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans.*) So a violent crime drama may be a roller-coaster ride for a conservative but a snoozefest (or a comedy) for a liberal.
It's possible that these studies overstate things, but they make intuitive sense given how rarely people seem to change political views based on new information. ("The new research should make us more tolerant, not less, of political difference," Chris Mooney says of the born-that-way theory.)**
As for pop culture, if your brain affects how you perceive political issues, can it affect how you see movies and TV shows?
I ask this because of my reaction to certain kinds of violent entertainment, particularly TV crime dramas that focus on serial killers. To me, shows like Dexter, The Following, and Criminal MInds are pure camp, full of preposteorously brilliant sociopaths and, even more ridiculous, normal people who aid and protect the serial killers. These shows would make more sense directed by John Waters, since the killers are less believable than any of the characters played by Divine (being deprived of cha-cha heels is at least an inventive excuse to go on a crime spree) and their motives are less comprehensible than the "no white after Labor Day" killer in Serial Mom.
Having lived in large cities all of my life, I have to laugh at the idea that there's murder around every corner, enough of it for detectives to come across the scene of a massacre and act as if it's something they've seen a hundred times before. But do some people have brains enabling them to take these shows about Hannibal Lecter clones as serious depictions of violence in America?
I don't watch many CBS procedurals, but I did go through several episodes of Elementary, since it seemed possible that a show placing Sherlock Holmes in contemporary New York might have more of a classical mystery structure, in which recognizable human beings commit murder because of extraordinary circumstances. Alas, Elementary is also preoccupied with serial killers, and it usually operates on the principle that one murder is never enough to hold the audience's attention for an hour. Two recent episodes feature the nutty twist of a family member helping a serial killer to continue his work; another was about a guy offing people as part of a complicated scheme to get money for his sick wife. In one of these episodes, there's a red-herring suspect who turns out to have a sex slave chained up in his basement; this has nothing to do with the case of the week, and no one remarks on the extraordinary coincidence. The implication is that you can find murderers and rapists on any block in New York City, and this might not seem absurd to viewers who think a strange car in the driveway must mean a home invasion.
The Following didn't disappoint me as much because, probably unintentionally, it's more of a rehash of sci-fi shows like V and the contemplative reboot of Battlestar Galactica, both shows in which aliens infiltrate the human race in order to wipe it out. The hokum about people becoming disciples of a serial killer and worshipping Edgar Allan Poe is merely there to connect with viewers who don't want to watch toasters or lizards slit the throats of sorority girls; they prefer to think of such behavior as intrinstic to human nature.*** With The Following, you won't get any socialist propaganda about human beings coming together to work against a common threat; instead, you can feel more justified in your suspicion that the guy who just moved in next door is some kind of dangerous weirdo.
Writing about The Following, Todd VanDerWerff identifies its lazy writing for what it is: "coddling" viewers.
It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about its violence. It doesn’t particularly care to talk about damaged individuals who can be taken in by a killer or about the media’s obsession with violence or even about the role of violence in art. It occasionally seems to saunter up to these questions (particularly the last, when it almost seems to be offering meta-commentary on its own existence as a weekly television show), but then it steps away, because considering the deeper implications of the troubling acts within the show could potentially turn off the audience. The violence in The Following needs to all be of the funhouse variety, or else it would push too much, be too raw.
Whether you compare it to a funhouse or a roller-coaster, the serial-killer genre shows no sign of losing popularity, even as it gets more graphic and increases the frequency of (let's just say it) cum shots. Critics can write rational arguments about the cheapening of violence in popular entertainment, but they're unlikely to have any effect on killing-spree aficionados. How we react to The Following may just be a matter of how our brains are wired.
* The other study, "Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences," hypothesizes that:
one's level of social phobia, which refers to discomfort with novel social situations, reflects a threshold for comfort with unfamiliarity or dissimilar others. This fear trait then influences political attitudes toward out-groups, such as immigrants or ethnic minorities, because these groups represent precisely those kinds of stimuli that more fearful people would be expected to find most threatening.
** One question I have is how this theory fits with geographic patterns. You'd expect that people whose brains react more strongly to threats would be more or less evenly distributed across the country. But Democrats win most major cities by big margins (Obama got 84% in both Manhattan and San Francisco), while Republicans win most of America's more sparsely populated areas. Is this because of a self-sorting process, in which people who thrive on new and unfamiliar stimuli move to the city, and those more attuned to danger move out to small towns? Or does living in one place or the other for a long time change your brain, making you more or less fearful?
*** TV critic Jaime Weinman ((@weinmanj) tweets: "The answer to the TV violence "problem" is the old Saturday morning cartoon solution: more robots. You can kill robots all you want."
Top photo: Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. Bottom: Divine in Female Trouble.