Biology in the News Explained

Politics and Biology, Part 1

A recent paper in Nature Neuroscience (Amodio, D.M., J.T. Jost, S.L. Master & C.M. Yee, 2007. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neuroscience 10:1246-1247) has been presented as far more controversial than it is – although surely the authors knew they would ruffle a few feathers with their study.

Here is the abstract:

Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.

The authors give citations to support the claim that “Across dozens of behavioral studies, conservatives have been found to be more structured and persistent in their judgments”. I have not read those papers but for the purpose of this commentary will assume that there is indeed scientific support for this conclusion. Though their experimental procedure is clearly one accepted by neuroscientists, the rest of us are expected to take at their word that “responsiveness to complex and potentially conflicting information relates to the sensitivity of this general mechanism for monitoring response conflict.” Here is the test:

Go/No-Go task. On each trial of the Go/No-Go task, either the letter “M” or “W” was presented in the center of a computer monitor screen… Half of the participants were instructed to make a “Go” response when they saw “M” but to make no response when they saw “W”; the remaining participants completed a version in which “W” was the Go stimulus and “M” was the No-Go stimulus; assignment to either version of the task was random. Responses were registered on a computer keyboard placed in the participants’ laps. Each trial began with a fixation point, presented for 500 ms. The target then appeared for 100 ms, followed by a blank screen. Participants were instructed to respond within 500 ms of target onset. A “Too slow!” warning message appeared after responses that exceeded this deadline, and “Incorrect” feedback was given after erroneous responses.

There is no way here to confirm the authors’ interpretation that results obtained on this test are explained by liberals’ higher sensitivity to “cognitive conflict” at the level of political decisions, but it is an interesting idea, because it appears both from cited research and probably anyone’s observations that conservatives tend to have more of a black-and-white view of the world, while liberals tend see more shades of gray. (“Liberal” here is used in its traditional sense, not the currently distorted media code word for “left wing.” Indeed, hard left-wingers are arguably no more liberal than hard right-wingers.)

The paper wisely does not attempt to determine whether this brain-function correlate or political leaning comes first (and they certainly do not at all imply that the response of liberals to this test is “smarter,” despite William Saletan’s defensive interpretation). It should not be assumed that just because the brain shows a certain physiological response to a stimulus, this response is genetic. Just as the accumulation of memories alters pathways in our neurons, a response such as this may be “learned” by the brain as well, based on experience.

Of course, some people become more conservative with life experience. Here are three untested hypotheses for why this can happen (given the conclusion that liberals see more complexity in the world than do conservatives).

1) Often, people become more fiscally conservative as they grow older. Fiscal conservatism is, however, a separate issue from that of “cognitive conflict.” Those emphasizing the long term will be more fiscally conservative than those who prefer to live in the moment, which is more correlated with age group than with social or political views. Certainly over the last three decades political conservatives have shown no sign of being fiscal conservatives.

2) Someone who has suffered a traumatic, life-affecting event, such as a death or lost job, or whose loved ones have, might find it simpler to have an easily defined target to blame. Bad economic times had a lot to do with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan.

3) There is really no way to form economic or social policy that takes into account all the complexities that a diverse group of people will experience. Because it is simpler to craft legislation that does not take so many complexities into account, policy makers – and the pundits living in the same beltway world, away from the real one, and those listening to the pundits – come to believe we live in a simple world with easily definable boundaries. Such was one of the major reasons the SCHIP legislation failed. The idea that there is a particular income cutoff, above which every American family can afford health insurance without regard to any other parameters, was heavily promoted by the conservative opposition to the bill.

A corollary of the last point is that people who are well-off financially are usually conservative not because they are fiscally conservative (many of them are not), but because it is emotionally least complicated to believe there is a simple reason why they are wealthy while so many others are poor, e.g. they work hard and poor people don’t.

There also could be positive physiological feedback loops in the brain which strengthen a tendency to fall one way or the other in one’s view of the world. While some people do change their political views, most people actually seem to become more strongly liberal or conservative over time. It is an unfortunate by-product of our social tendency to form opposing groups that once we have formed an opinion about a person or topic, our views become more confirmed because we accept observations that support them, and ignore or rationalize observations that do not support them.

To be truly objective in his or her views, a person would need to be constantly reassessing prior beliefs based on every bit of new information received. Why are humans, many of whom pride themselves on their over-awing logical arguments, not that way at all? Perhaps it is because as social animals, we are always creating rules to live by, and the simpler those rules are, the easier our lives are, in many ways. Even with our large brains, it would get too difficult to navigate socially, as we need to, if the rules were too complex.


2 Responses to “Politics and Biology, Part 1”

  1. Leo Toribio says:

    Recent studies have also revealed that after consuming an excess of alcohol, even liberals begin to exhibit tendencies toward conservative thinking.

    Leo Toribio
    Pittsburgh, PA

  2. That’s amusing, Leo, thanks for the reference!

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