Monday, September 10, 2007

Neuroscience Looks at Liberals and Conservatives

You might have already seen this article in the LA Times, or heard about it, looking at EEGs and behaviors of liberals and conservatives. First, an opinion. Scientists studying the way we think sometimes discuss it in terms of "the mind" and sometimes in terms of "the brain," as if these were interchangeable. Sometimes this is valid, but sometimes we act as though brain-explanations are equivalent to mind-explanations; this is an instance of something called the mereological fallacy. Brains don't think, for instance, minds think. This is an important distinction in my research, and I am sorry when I see cognitive neuroscientists or the journalists who report on them make that kind of error. Mind is a quality that emerges when a human brain is nurtured in a mindful social context, let's say; minds need more than a brain, minds need other people.

But still, there are times when it is interesting to see how an effect plays out in the correlation between brain activity and thought, and this might be an example of that.
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

In a simple experiment reported todayin the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter. Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain

So the background: liberal and conservative minds differ, conservatives like to stick with the familiar ways of doing things and liberals like to try something new sometimes. Pretty much sums it up.

But is it "because of how their brains work?" Or do their brains work that way because of how they have learned to think?

And that last sentence is ... just wrong, comparing the generalization of a learned association to an unconditioned reflex.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

There are two kinds of data here: the rate of correct responses and EEG of this particular part of the brain. Liberals responded better when the unexpected stimulus was shown, and their brainwaves correspondingly showed activity in the part that computes whether a habitual response is inappropriate.

You see that this can be interpreted in two ways. Liberals and conservatives behave differently, okay, that's interesting but not especially surprising. Liberals' and conservatives' brains function differently -- okay, given that they behave differently, you'd expect that, wouldn't you?

It's not like they've proven that liberals' brains are inherently different from conservatives' brains. You can't tell if this is a learned pattern or an inherited one, for instance. So let's not use this to argue that our side and the other side are "just different" from one another.
Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

"There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science," said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals.

But look, the EEG data don't affect these conclusions at all. All you needed to know was the error rates with the presentation of the less-familiar stimulus.
Lead author David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, cautioned that the study looked at a narrow range of human behavior and that it would be a mistake to conclude that one political orientation was better. The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information could be a good thing depending on the situation, he said.

Political orientation, he noted, occurs along a spectrum, and positions on specific issues, such as taxes, are influenced by many factors, including education and wealth. Some liberals oppose higher taxes and some conservatives favor abortion rights.

Still, he acknowledged that a meeting of the minds between conservatives and liberals looked difficult given the study results.

"Does this mean liberals and conservatives are never going to agree?" Amodio asked. "Maybe it suggests one reason why they tend not to get along."

See what I mean? Even the author of the study thinks that because their brains react differently, they might never see eye-to-eye. Maybe he knows something beyond what is carried in this newspaper story, but the study as reported does not give any evidence that this is an innate difference, shall we say, versus a learned one. Brains change as people learn stuff, that's no secret. I think it is dangerous and gullible to assign greater causal weight to the physiological process than to the social ones, to act as if "the brain" is making decisions that "the person" is responsible for. And I think our more conservative readers will want to agree with that view, as well.

The brain activity doesn't have anything to do with any of these conclusions, except maybe to show what brain processes correlate with what kind of decision-making. Some people adapt better to unusual situations, some people seek out new experiences, some people look at what's in front of them before they make a decision, and some don't, or some do it more than others. We expect brain activity to reflect thinking, and vice versa -- the brain is obviously a physical mechanism that supports thinking. This difference in how we respond to unusual circumstances may turn out to be an important, fundamental dichotomy across human beings, hard-wired, as they say, before birth, or it may turn out to be one of a gazillion individual differences that arise as people are enculturated, as they learn how to respond to the world from their parents, teachers, friends.

I think it really is interesting that self-identified liberals and conservatives respond differently like this. They do about the same when the "familiar" letter is shown, but when a different letter is shown, the liberals notice the difference and the conservatives respond as if the familiar one had been seen. It's a kind of neat experiment to show what is actually probably an important difference between "us" and "them," and a constant source of frustration for the difference-noticers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is obnoxiously long, so I apologize up front, hopefully it’s worth it. Also, there is a definite overtone of esoteria in the quotes provided which some may wish to ignore. Any embolding is mine.

Starting with definitions of left and right brain hemispheres/thinking.

From Robert A. Monroe’s “Ultimate Journey”

"Left brain = Human Mind modified by the Earth Life System

Right Brain = Expression of Core Self, the timeless, nonphysical part of us, untouched and unaffected by the Earth Life System.

The trick is to get both left and right brain into simultaneous and synchronous action, nudging the left brain more and more in to taking part in the There [right brain] activity. You should never abandon one for the other."
Essentially the Right hemisphere of our brains is responsible for creative thought and the left part for analytical thought. Interestingly, and generally speaking, the left brain operates the right side of the body and the right brain the left part of our body.

More details at Wikipedia.

Clearly, when it comes to thinking and responding to life situations, both hemispheres participate to varying degrees. But in the larger context of which you’re speaking, liberals would be considered predominantly right brain thinkers, and conservatives predominantly left brain thinkers.

More from “Ultimate Journey”

QUOTE: A kind of cultural subwar has been going on for centuries and has come to the surface only in recent years. The dominant-left-brainers consider the dominant-right-brainers to be basically unfit for existence in the Earth Life System and tend to regard them with contempt or disbelief. The dominant-right-brainers look on the others as unimaginative, dull, overmaterialistic, unfeeling, and lacking in “spiritual values.”

It is time now to declare peace in this battle and to set right this dangerous misunderstanding.

Our prime and fundamental purpose, aside from learning through experience in being human, is to acquire and develop what we label intellect: left brain consciousness. We do not need to act similarly with our right brain abilities because we already have them. We brought them with us; somehow they were inherent.

It is the left brain capability that is of exquisite value when we visit or return to the There, beyond time-space. It is the left brain that removes the limitations on our growth that were present prior to our sojourn here. Only left brain function can make Unknowns into Knowns, dissolve fears, enhance experience, open new vistas, clean out the false belief system refuse. It is the left brain that takes any idea, information, or inspiration emanating from or via the right brain and puts it into action. By any standards, something of value cannot become real unless and until the left brain takes over.

For millennia the human right brain has not changed. It has not grown or evolved. It is the same as it always was. In contrast, left brain consciousness has been steadily evolving, either by design or necessity. In the past century, this growth has become an exponential curve, not simply in one or two individuals but in literally millions of humans throughout the period....By its very nature, the left brain cannot help becoming involved in constructive evaluation and application. The right brain is forcing it to do so – and the right brain is in charge.

What has happened is that our left brain has become so thoroughly entrenched – and justifiably so – in providing means of survival in the Earth Life System that it resists anything and everything that may interfere with or interrupt the process. What occurs beyond time space, in the There, does not calculate by ordinary Earth Life System standards. More important, information from there appears to have no value for Earth Life System inhabitants. Only when our left brain recognizes that such knowledge is a most vital tool for growth in the There will specific interest be generated.

Our different Overview in includes most emphatically the maturing talents of our left brain. As we have said, that’s what we came here to acquire. Dominant-right-brainers find this difficult, or impossible, to accept.

As it is the boss, the right brain often forces the left brain to perform in a way that tends to destroy thousands of years of evolution. Meanwhile, our left brain continues to pick up the useable ideas and inspirations of the right brain and make them into something of value. It tolerates the nonproductive right brain patterns as long as they don’t get in the way. It also heavily distorts some right brain patterns to convert them into the Earth Life System survivor-predator organization. :END QUOTE
So he’s talking about left/right brain thinking on an individual AND on a collective basis. I’m not sure quite what this adds yet, but this concept / understanding applies to so many liberal / conservative responses to issues.

Take the biggest one, 9-11, the anniversary of which is today even. The right-brain liberal response thinking is to reduce terrorism by reducing global poverty, improve US foreign policy, and if need be, go after and get the people who actually are responsible for 9-11, Bin laden and/or our own Government, etc. But there’s so many variables to respond to that it almost frustrates us back into a state of complacency.

Where as your left-brain conservatives respond with the kill or be killed survival mentality to the extent that a war, based on lies, with a country that had nothing to do with 9-11, is perfectly acceptable because it makes them feel more powerful, and thus makes them feel safer. I think the idea is that if our government is lying, or waging an illegal war of ANY kind, they’re doing it to protect us.

As a liberal, that’s a perspective I could at least respect in principle, but they don’t seem to have the intellectual courage to admit as much. Then again, admitting to such a dishonest stance would give we “enemy” liberals ammunition against them, and that would go against their survival drive.

The only real thing I can offer is as John Dean, author of Conservatives Without Conscience, said when asked what can be done. He basically said people just need to be made aware of it – the authoritarian mindset.

I’d say the same. It’s conversations about the conceptual overview itself that need to be had. Because it seems to vindicate both sides. From my perspective, it makes me understand that there really is a method to their madness, the overly rampant dishonesty on the conservative side is seen as a perverted aspect of the fear-based survival drive. And even liberals can relate to that.

So that’s my 2¢

September 11, 2007 4:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think it really is interesting that self-identified liberals and conservatives respond differently like this."

Did the account of the study say "self-identified" or did you make that up? Most people eschew political labels so if it relied on self-identification, the study must have had a limited scope.

September 11, 2007 6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did the account of the study say "self-identified" or did you make that up?

There are several media reports about this study. Scientific American has published theirs here.

Scientific American reports "Prior to beginning the experiment, volunteers were asked to rate their political leanings based on a scale from –5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (very conservative)."

No one "made it up." The research subjects rated themselves along a continuum from liberal to conservative, which is one way of determining a person's "political leanings." Of course anyone can lie about their "leanings" political or otherwise just like certain ex-gays (Cooper and Bussee, John Paulk, and Michael Johnston, etc.) and some recently discovered prominent right-wing leaders and politicians (Senator Craig, Reverend Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, etc.).

Making up stories is what the anti-tolerance side does, just like that interesting Ex-gay-watch expose on PFOX's made up story of victimization at the Arlington County Fair demonstrates. (Thanks to Anonymous who posted on September 12, 2007 4:28 PM, on the Art of Hasslement thread for the tip and link.)

September 13, 2007 10:32 AM  

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