Neurophilosophy

Research suggests that liberals and conservatives have different personality traits and “cognitive styles”: while liberals are more intellectually curious and tolerant of ambiguity, conservatives have a greater desire to reach decisions quickly and are more consistent in the way they make those decisions.

A new study, published online today in Nature Neuroscience, suggests that there may be a neural basis for these differences in cognitive style. The study provides evidence that there are differences in the way the brains of liberals and conservatives respond to situations involving difficult decisions.

In the study, which was led by David Amodio of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at New York University,  43 participants who were first asked to score their political views on a scale of -5 to +5, with -5 being extremely libral and +5 being highly conservative.

They were then asked to perform a simple task in which they were presented with one of two letters on a computer screen. They were required to press one button if they saw the letter “M” and another if they saw a “W”. While this task was performed, the researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the participants’ brain activity.

This was repeated 500 times, with one of the letters being presented far more frequently – in 80% of the trials – than the other. By pressing the same button repeatedly, the participants established a routine response. But when the less frequent letter was presented, the correct response required a break in that routine.

It was found that those who considered themselves to be conservatives made more response errors when upon presentatin of the infrequent letters than those who considered themselves as liberals (respectively, 47% and 37% of the time).  

The EEG data showed that, during the trials in which the infrequent letter was presented, the anterior cingulate cortex (AAC) was twice as active in liberals than in conservatives.

The ACC is one of the brain’s executive control centres, and is hypothesized to be involved in detecting and signalling conflicts in information processing. So liberals showed significantly more conflict-related brain activity when confronted with a situation in which they are required to break an old habit.

This does not mean, however, that differences in ACC activity are directly correlated to political orientation. Although the brain mechanisms underlying conflict monitoring are already in place at a very early age, the environment is also likely to have a major influence political views.   

Reference:

Amodio, D. M., et al. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nat. Neurosci. doi:10.1038/nn1979. [Abstract]

Comments

  1. #1 dd
    September 9, 2007

    So, is it safe to say that conservatives are brain dead? :-)

  2. #2 Blue Dog
    September 9, 2007

    Interesting. The media is already running with this study.

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    September 9, 2007

    Causality may be confusing too, I would think; perhaps something about the sorts of things that get empahsized and valued for those growing up in conservative vs. liberal homes effects the direction of brain development.

    I’d be interested to invent a time machine and scan myself 15 years ago as compared to myself now. I’m much more liberal politically now than I was then, although I still am probably among one of the more conservative of the science bloggers….

  4. #4 juandos
    September 9, 2007

    So is someone trying to gin up and excuse for why liberals are scatter brained?

  5. #5 Herb West
    September 10, 2007

    I wonder if there was any correlation between gender, age or race of the participants.

    From the supplementary methods: “A measure of political attitudes was embedded in a larger set of personality and attitudes surveys completed at the every beginning of the experimental session.”

    Perhaps there were any other correlations? I wonder what the odds were of a stastically significant finding given the number of personality and attitude surveys.

  6. #6 Wes
    September 10, 2007

    One problem I have with tying liberalism and conservatism to heritable brain features is that that makes it difficult to explain why liberalism and conservatism seem to be concentrated in certain regions (e.g. liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West). I doubt that these regions are reproductionally isolated from each other–there’s gotta be a lot of genes flowing back and forth between all parts of America, right? So then how is it that certain political orientations show such strong correlation with geography. And why the urban/rural differences in political orientation?

  7. #7 David Harmon
    September 10, 2007

    I suspect this is measuring something on the level of temperament, or the underlying factors thereof. This might well be correlated to political stance.

  8. #8 John
    September 10, 2007

    I am afraid many folks have complicated belief systems and sticking them with either label is a gross oversimplification and not an accurate description of such beliefs. This is right up there with the study confirming men choose attractive woman as partners in regards to its usefulness. Have we nothing else to study that could actually provide useful information? I suspect this was funded with tax dollars….ugh.

  9. #9 AntiDelusian
    September 10, 2007

    That’s an interesting study — thanks for posting it. (It must have been hellishly boring to be a study subject!)

    I think that it illustrates two phenomena, the correlation between brain activity and what we observe as well as the limitations in studying the substrate for complex functions.

    Various studies also suggest or demonstrate correlations between political conservativism, absolute moralism, dogmatic theism, and obedience to authority.

    My personal observation through debates with conservative-creationist-religionists is that their chief area of flexibility manifests in slippery illogic. In order to protect/argue for a rigid moralistic/theistic/creationistic stance, they adjust their “facts” to fit their preconceived notions and their worldviews exhibit considerable philosophical tension.

    The study suggests that they are doing this because they have difficulty adjusting the initial concept (God Did It and God Says So) to accommodate contradictory new information. I’d hypothesize that the lower inactivity in the ACC allows them to adjust the “truth” in this way because they don’t experience “I’m being illogical” alarms over untruths.

  10. #10 AntiDelusian
    September 10, 2007

    Wes “One problem I have with tying liberalism and conservatism to heritable brain features is that that makes it difficult to explain why liberalism and conservatism seem to be concentrated in certain regions (e.g. liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West).”

    I think that the answer to that does not necessarily run counter to the study’s findings. If you only look at whether or not the individual happens to be a political Conservative (easier for studies), then you are ignoring the influence of the do-as-you-are told and believe-what-you-are-told tendency that probably lies at the heart of the issue and which would logically result in unthinking adherence to ambient ideologies. (If the study had asked the participants to self-report on rigidity of attitudes and unthinking obedience to untenable ideas, then the results would have been skewed by self-flattery.)

    About 15 years ago I read a report on a research article that I have since, regrettably, been unable to find. The article concerned studies of the genetic inheritance of character traits and the researchers reported, to their surprise, that willingness to obey authority was the parameter with highest heritability. This would make sense if the genetic variable merely affected levels of ACC activity.

    (Interestingly, I wonder if this could tie into the heritability of Asperger’s syndrome.)

    Populations are mobile, so liberal thinkers might be more likely to move to areas known to have a high proportion of liberal thinkers and vice versa. (I, for example, would never contemplate moving to the Bible Belt, while Bible Belters might not fancy the North East.)

    So, there could be a variety of influences at work to account for the preponderance, but not 100% prevalence, of liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West. These influences might cloud the picture without falsifying the experimental findings.

  11. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    September 10, 2007

    … conservatives made more response errors … than … liberals (respectively, 47% and 37% of the time)…

    So Trent Lott would receive an “F” on this test, while Barbara Boxer would rate a “D”?

    A 10% difference in the error rate is a very slender hook from which to hang such weighty conclusions, especially given the high number of other potentially confounding variables.

    For example, I think I might have scored very highly in this study – but not because my politics are “progressive”, just because I used to work as a copy editor. A flaming reactionary with job experience as a USDA food inspector in an egg factory would probably do even better.

  12. #12 John Beowulf
    September 10, 2007

    I always thought that liberals seemed to have an inability to form solid opinions. This proves it!

  13. #13 ChrisD
    September 10, 2007

    It’s not entirely about the error rates. The most important part of this study, as I read it, is the correlation between heightened ACC activity and error rates decreasing. Lower error rates and higher ACC activity are related in this study.

  14. #14 Nick
    September 10, 2007

    AntiDelusian:

    You may be thinking of this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=2218526

    The full text looks to be available at:
    http://euvolution.com/articles/differences.html

    Also available is a NYTimes overview of an earlier journal article:
    http://tinyurl.com/2zqq8u

  15. #15 Herb
    September 11, 2007

    Maybe conservatives just have a preference for “W”.

  16. #16 Anibal
    September 11, 2007

    Neuropolitics, the last neuro-hyphenation, could be a promising emergent field to answer satisfactorily what Aristotle describing humans called “zoon politikon” as an essential characteristic of human behaviour.
    But what can be the holy grail of this burgeoning science is if political ideology can be traced in our genetic endowment something akin to political gene, or, on the contrary, is something that culture fortifies trhough enculturization (the never gone away distinction nurture Vs nature). Another line for research programme is wether political ideology can change trhough the life-span or wether it is associated with psychopatology (i think all politicians are seeking power by means not necessarily morally or even healthy ones)
    Also if neuroimaging progress to the stage of detecting evry psychological state that a human can harbour, perhaps neuropolitics can prevent people like Bush ruling a country.

  17. #17 The Neurocritic
    September 11, 2007

    Herb West, you raise a very good point about the number of personality and attitude measures given to the subjects. Perhaps the next paper from this dataset will find that liberals are neurotic and conservatives are antisocial.

  18. #18 Joseph Hertzlinger
    September 12, 2007

    Sample size 43?

    Isn’t that a bit small?

  19. #19 Yippee
    November 3, 2008

    Yes, liberals are ALWAYS smarter. Funny how that works in every study from liberal college student and professors, and yet every policy they stand behind results in more suffering and hardship for everyone in the long term.

    In fact they are so much smarter that they can understand the rationale for saving a species of animal, but play ignorant about the bedroom genocide of human species, and the differences between races.

    So in effect liberals will believe any study which makes them appear smarter, but would never give any credence to an study which shows one race to be smarter than another. You hippies are malicious liars who warp scientific results in your favor just as badly as they religious fanatics.

    Make sure you forget to post this because of all the hundreds of responses (19) you get, and not because it disagrees with your stance.

    43 participants sheesh. I could get 25 retards, 25 blind people and 25 geriatrics have them say they are liberals and prove the opposite point.

  20. #20 Geofry
    November 22, 2008

    I’m trying to think of another political group in history that used science to prove that they were better than everyone else… Oh yeah, the Nazi party.

  21. #21 Lance
    April 24, 2009

    Funny how conservatives always take offense when forced to observe facts, based on research. Is it any wonder they’re a dying breed. It’s called survival of the fittest. Also known as evolution. No one here is claiming superiority, but apparently you’re not wired to see it that way. Your end response begs to, in fact show, that you are incapable of comprehending progress, science, and fact.

  22. #22 Moriarty8
    March 27, 2010

    “Can’t we all get along?” I think not. Thank God.

  23. #23 Will
    November 2, 2010

    Fascinating: this article on purported ideological dyslexia was released in 2007 and in all this time no proofreader at scienceblogs dot com has noticed that the initial abbreviation for the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is set to ‘AAC’ yet in the next couple of paragraphs this same structure is referred to as ‘ACC’. A bit like the old ‘pot calling the kettle’ wouldn’t you say?

  24. #24 SpaceCreatureWilliams
    July 30, 2011

    I used to support Republicans but after years of hearing Alex Jones rant his hate and looking at what Republicans are really about I am no longer going to support them at all. If Michelle Bachmann is what the Tea Party is all about I am going to run away from the crazy psychotropic drug pushing hypocrite republicans as fast as possible and vote Democrat in 2012. They talk of freedom and liberty and give you the exact opposite. Republicans are fascist liars. Am I getting healed by republicans? lol