Liberal vs Conservative Brains

In college I began to ponder the oddities of political identification. It made no sense to me. It was like people had a paper bag, labeled it “Conservative/Republican” or “Liberal/Democrat”, and threw items in it with little concern if they made much sense together.

This was clearest to me with the Conservative bag where there was “Pro-Life” (and thus anti-Planned Parenthood, more on that in a moment), pro death penalty, and large war budgets. Now clearly in my mind, the basic principle, the prime motivator, of this set of issues was not supporting and nurturing life. Something else had to be going on despite the words being uttered.

And what goes into the bag and out can change too. A recent NPR Fresh Air podcast gave an example with the following quotes:

In talking about how birth control became politicized, you point to a very interesting fact, which is that in 1927, a survey of the members of the American Birth Control League, which was the predecessor of Planned Parenthood, found its membership to be disproportionately Republican from small towns and suburbs….

Goldwater and his wife are both very active in the Planned Parenthood organization in Phoenix. Goldwater’s wife I think is president of the board. I don’t know that Goldwater himself, I don’t think Goldwater himself ever serves on the board, but they’re very active supporters. And really the support for Planned Parenthood in the 1950s and 1960s really is fairly mainline Republican kind of support. There are a lot of women who volunteer their time, and who volunteer with other kinds of organizations like the League of Women Voters. But in – Planned Parenthood is in some places controversial. But actually the criticism of Planned Parenthood in those decades is coming from the left, it’s coming from black nationalists. That’s where it’s in the 1960s that these charges that Planned Parenthood is establishing more clinics in poor black neighborhoods than in poor white neighborhoods and that Planned Parenthood is coercing young women into birth control choices that they object to.

Or consider how the Democratic party was the party of war in the 1900’s with Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK all starting major wars, yet because the anti-war movement gravitated to it in the 1960’s and it soon became perceived as a weak on war, wimpy party. I’m very curious if we’re seeing that change again with Obama’s rather strong support of a balanced military and his aggressively moving into new military technology (attack drones) and organization (much more reliance on special op’s).

Over the years I began to ask if political affiliations were based on very very deep brain functions, so deep it was akin to being color blind, a perception or cognition issue. Technology has changed and I’m so happy I can start getting actual answers to these questions.

A 2007 article, Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain, offers some real insight into this. Psychologists  at New York University and UCLA had a full spectrum of “very liberal” to “very conservative”  students participate. They were instructed to tap a keyboard whenever an M appeared on the computer screen and ignore the W’s. M’s appeared four times more often than W’s in order to establish a knee-jerk habit.

Participants were attached to an electroencephalograph recording the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a comma-shaped region near the front of the brain involved with decision-making and detecting conflicts between habitual actions (pressing the keyboard) verses more appropriate response (not pressing the key).

Liberals were found to have 4.9 times the ACC activity than conservatives, and were 2.2 times more likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy. The researchers switched the M and W responses with another group of participants with the same result.

“Based on these results liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific, or religious ideas.”

In a 2011 article, Liberal vs. Conservative: Does the Difference Lie in the Brain? we learn that MRI scans show self identified liberals generally have a larger ACC, and those identifying themselves as conservatives have larger amygdalas, almond-shaped structures deep in the brain linked with emotional learning and processing fear.

These differences, the authors suggest, could account for studies showing liberals tend to manage conflicting information better, while conservatives are better at recognizing threats.

The article also mentions a couple other stories:

  • In October 2010 University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University identified a “liberal gene“, a variant called DRD4-7R affects dopamine, linked to a personality type driven to seek out new experiences.
  • A University of Nebraska study found liberals and conservatives have different reactions to “gaze cues”–whether they look in the same direction as a face on a computer screen. Liberals were more likely to follow the the computer face’s gaze. This suggests conservatives value autonomy more, and/or that liberals are more empathetic, and/or conservatives are less trusting of others.

Ah…. Things can start to make sense to me then. If conservatives have greater fear, and more difficulty dealing with ambiguity I can begin to understand the more fundamental reasons why things go into the different bags. Pro-life? There’s no ambiguity there. Life begins at a clear point, conception, unlike liberals who think a fetus is a person some ambiguous time after conception when the fetus has awareness.

Death penalty? Another unambiguous result. Judgement is rendered and justice is done. The balance of moral accounts is done, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. Second amendment rights? Department of War (the old and more real designation to me)? All help assuage the fearful amygdalas with unambigous actions. “Shock and awe” and “Mission Accomplished” signs leave no ambiguity and it seems much less messy, nuanced, and long taking than diplomatic actions.

Questions remain. Are the brain structures driven by genetics, environment, and/or experiences? For instance, maybe it is childhood experiences that cause the amygdalas to grow. What other things are happening in the brain to further illuminate these issues?

I also want to stress that evolution shows that both these structures must be important, a point that might not carry much weight with conservatives it seems. During some times it might be a strong advantage to cut past all those ambiguities. Other times thinking outside the box, or habit in this case, is critical to move on, especially in times of lots of change.

In any case we live in exciting times finding out what drives our politics.We are also in humbling, even embarrassing, times where we learn we are less driven by our intellects, high values, and insights than we are by a little too much dopamine in a brain structure.

Leave a Reply