Cognitively Challenged

conservatism, liberalism and progressivism

Y’all will enjoy this one — some researchers have found differences in brain activity between liberals and conservatives. Simply put, we think differently because we think differently.

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 today in 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. …

… 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.”

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.

Attempting to be diplomatic, the lead author cautioned that it would be a mistake to assume one style of thinking is better than the other. The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information (e.g., “facts”) could be useful in some circumstances, he said. And I’m sure that’s true. If your survival depends on, say, catching flies with your tongue, single-minded focus on where the flies are must be a big plus.

On the other hand, if your survival depends on making intelligent decisions about, say, Middle East policy — not so much.

Update: Some more blog reaction to this story has come in. Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek (I postulate this is a “free market” blogger) points out that the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” are hard to pin down, which puts the results in question. But I think this experiment sheds light on the phenomenon of left-right division on the blogosphere and elsewhere. In spite of the fact that it’s damn near impossible to come up with definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” that everyone agrees to, the political blogosphere has very neatly sorted itself into a Right and a Left, with relatively few blogs occupying a consistently ambiguous middle. We somehow know what side we belong to, even if we can’t articulate why. This suggests there is something other than pure linear logic going on here.

This rightie blogger is confused.

What the results showed was more emotional activity in the brains of Leftists when presented with a difficult task so I would see the results as yet another example of Leftists being more emotional — as being emotionally-driven rather than reason-driven. I suspect that most readers of this blog would see Leftists that way.

I went back and re-read the original article, and the word emotion doesn’t appear in it anywhere. The study did not show there was more “emotional activity” in the brains of Leftists when presented with a difficult task. Here’s how the article described the experiment:

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.

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.

According to Wikipedia,

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the frontal part of the cingulate cortex, which resembles a “collar” form around the corpus callosum, the fibrous bundle that relays neural signals between the right and left cerebral hemispheres of the brain.

It includes both the ventral and dorsal areas of the cingulate cortex, and appears to play a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.

Neuroscientists indicate the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is primarily related to rational cognition while the ventral is more related to emotional cognition.

The anterior cingulate cortex is active in both cognitive and emotional tasks, it says here, and also plays a role in motor tasks. Scientists think the anterior cingulate cortex may play a role in integrating mental processes with bodily systems. It has also been observed that people with lesions on their anterior cingulate cortex tend to be apathetic and unconcerned when significant events occur.

See also tristero.

Share Button


  1. moonbat  •  Sep 10, 2007 @11:01 am

    I love that the experiment is so simple and straightforward, that it’s hard for even a rightie to dispute.

    The canard about lefties being emotional and not operating out of reason says more about how that wingnut is clueless about his own emotions, motivations and projections, and how he has to mash the data through this belief, instead of just seeing it as it is. His comment is an example of exactly what the experiment was testing, whether one steers toward rigid adherence to dogma, or whether one is open to novelty.

    Sometime ago, I was tempted to write and surreptitiously install a computer program on a wingnut co-worker’s computer, that would flash a large “DUH” on his screen as well as sounding it out whenever said wingnut hit the “W” key. This psych experiment kind of does the same thing, on a massive scale.

  2. Pat  •  Sep 10, 2007 @11:45 am

    It is not surprising that when conservatives are confronted with fact-based reasoning, they try to call it “emotion.” Their prevailing tendency in political or other discourse is to resist fact-checking and lay a claim to values which often bear only the most strained resemblance to what they are being used to justify.

    It’s important to remember that a host of factors, including environmental ones exert effects on a finished person. The most hair-trigger responses from a few conservative bloggers though anecdotal, are humorous to the extent that they make the case of those they are arguing against. Evidently, sublteties elude them.

    It is almost as if some primal ability to sort into categories, boxes, or mental partitions has gone awry. On the one hand everything gets sorted nice and tidy…a place for everything and everything in its place. The problem is that the end of sorting through things is sacrificed to the means of sorting accurately.

    Call them boxes or rhetorical frames of reference, the inescapable backdrop to arguments between those who might oversimplify their categories (and resist accomodating explanations of the “gray areas” into their system) vs. those whose world view might take more facets or the objects being sorted into account (thus appearing maddeningly complex or even contradictory to those who do not) is that one side has a simple flawed message and the other is left resorting to either demonstrations of flawed thinking or complex solutions.

    Complex solutions can easily be eploited as Pandora’s boxes, require work to understand and validate, and are more often approached as something unknown with concomitant fear.

    Headaches always arise from acting on a messy, unrealistic schema of reality that is not highly invested in fact. The energy required to maintain an idealized, innacurate, and incomplete world view in light of its chinks and the inevitable assault on it by reality is tremendous. Certainly this is what we see with the likes of Ted Haggard and more recently, an outgoing Sentaor from Idaho.

    These are just the most extreme tips of the iceberg as manifested as hypocrisy at the most fundamental levels. Still, their cognitive/emotional soulmates in government and the media who fudge their reasoning at higher levels, where both intent and results are more difficult to access, fight tooth and nail to ward off the paper cuts imposed by the preponderance of truth.

    Similarly to the studies Maha cites, there are some interesting studies of the brain that reveal what happens when emotional centers are either damaged or must be excised. The afflicted lose their ability to think. Ennui sets in and the ability to gain momentum (as that incorporated in checking facts, testing hypotheses, and delving into gray areas that makes sorting into boxes a real pain) in almost any direction is lost. With the loss of these emotional center’s functioning goes the ability to think as well.

    A lot has also been written about differences in thinking between conservatives and liberals that are attributed to the limbic system, the part of the brain uses for storing, collating, and retrieving impressions of threats. Studies reveal a correlation between heightened limbic system activity and political identification.

    There is no shortage of literature on any of these topics but adapting ones world view to the can only be made more difficult by integrating what has increasingly become accepted as scientific fact.

  3. Pat  •  Sep 10, 2007 @12:00 pm

    As to the pingback #2. This willful misinterpretation of MoveOn.Org’s ad does sound a little emotional and possibly even fearful. So much for conservative tagging of liberals with the emotional label. That hardly seems accurate…

    It always starts the same way, taking some bit in context completely out of context then amplifying the conflation to some steady number in the population who can be totally depended upon not to look any further.

  4. KingGeorgeTheTenth  •  Sep 11, 2007 @12:42 am

    While I rejoice at this study because it makes me feel quite comfortable with patting myself on the back (“I’m not the only one who enjoys nuance after all!”). I wonder about something. I’ve recently returned from two years in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps Volunteer. During my time in Bulgaria, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the conservative American media day and night insisting how America was a “conservative” country and how George Bush is god, it wasn’t till then that I realized I really am liberal.

    The point is a factor that must be considered while judging peoples political leanings is their environment. What people see and do has an extreme effect on how they think. Americans who sit around listening to talk shows all day become convinced they are conservatives, and that the nasty liberal New York Times is out to get them. Most often I would assume they have never read a single New York Times article or editorial, so they just take the blowhards word that its liberal. The truth is if more Americans had a chance to see how the rest of the world is they would realize its ok to be liberal, its something to be proud of.

  5. MNPundit  •  Sep 11, 2007 @11:56 am

    JR is equating “conflict” with “emotional” which I find rather interesting and illuminating of their own mode of thought.

  6. Porlock Junior  •  Sep 11, 2007 @11:00 pm

    Gee, this looks real complex; no wonder some people have trouble understanding it.

    I mean, you train people in a task that tends to produce a knee-jerk reaction. Some people, when given the other, non-knee-jerk stimulus, show more brain activity than others do, and make fewer erroneous knee-jerk reactions. These people are called liberals.

    I guess that would be hard for a conervative brain to understand.

3 Trackbacks