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Dec 04 2012

Conservatives, Liberals and Brain Differences

ProCon has put together a list of 16 studies on the differences between conservatives and liberals in terms of their brains and their personalities. This is an area that fascinates me and some of these specific results are very interesting. For instance:

1. Conservatives spend more time looking at unpleasant images, and liberals spend more time looking at pleasant images.

“We report evidence that individual-level variation in people’s physiological and attentional responses to aversive and appetitive stimuli are correlated with broad political orientations. Specifically, we find that greater orientation to aversive stimuli tends to be associated with right-of-centre and greater orientation to appetitive (pleasing) stimuli with left-of-centre political inclinations.”

Michael D. Dodd, PhD, Amanda Balzer, PhD, Carly Jacobs, MA, Michael Gruszczynski, MA, Kevin B. Smith, PhD, and John R. Hibbing, PhD, “The Left Rolls with the Good; The Right Confronts the Bad. Physiology and Cognition in Politics,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Mar. 5, 2012

The link in the quote is to a PDF of the actual paper. That paper also says that recent research is finding many other similar patterns:

A growing body of research finds that political orientations vary with an array of broader constructs such as personality traits, moral foundations, core values, baseline neural structures, neural activation in response to unexpected stimuli, self-reported sensitivity to threat, tendency to perceive threat in faces, physiological response to threat, sensitivity to disgust and possibly even genetics.

Hair-trigger autonomic nervous systems generate rapid and elevated physiological responses to aversive stimuli and chronic sensitivity to violations of security, purity and order may rivet attention on the problematic aspects of the environment. Conversely, heightened physiological response to appetitive stimuli and a chronic craving of new experiential pleasures may lead an individual to devote more attention to appealing aspects of the environment. Whatever the source of these biological and psychological predispositions, people may accordingly self-select, often
subconsciously, into situations likely to match their physiological and cognitive biases, according to the approach-avoidant spectrum. For example, those whose physiology responds strongly to violations of their preferences for protection, purity and order and are known to devote high levels of attention to such violations, are likely to take steps in their personal lives to avoid situations in which they encounter violations of security, purity and order. In other words, these individuals may be more likely to display the personal values of tradition, conformity and security. On the other hand, those whose physiology responds strongly to stimuli portraying desirable situations and
experiences, and/or those who devote relatively high levels of attention to appetitive stimuli may be more likely to subscribe to the personal values of hedonism, stimulation and self-direction…

This theory is supported by recent evidence that individuals’ personal values correlate with their political values as well as evidence that people’s political values are related to their motivations in making moral decisions. Those who, in relative terms, stress minimizing harm and maximizing equality tend to be left-of-centre in their political beliefs and those who stress purity and authority tend to be right-of-centre

This all seems quite intuitive. Those who are more fearful of new experiences and prone to reacting very strongly to threats are more likely to cling to tradition, routine and authority and therefore more likely to be politically conservative. And there appears to be some evidence that this is not merely due to one’s upbringing but is at least partly controlled by genetics and brain structure, though, quite frankly, I’m not really capable of evaluating the validity of those kinds of studies (many of them linked to above).

2. Reliance on quick, efficient, and “low effort” thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.

“…[P]olitical conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking. When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient; these conditions promote conservative ideology… low-effort thought might promote political conservatism because its concepts are easier to process, and processing fluency increases attitude endorsement.

Four studies support our assertion that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism… Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural.”

Scott Eidelman, PhD, Christian S. Crandall, PhD, Jeffrey A. Goodman, PhD, and John C. Blanchar, “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2012

Now here we must be careful to avoid confirmation bias. It’s all too easy to accept such conclusions because they are in line with what we would like to believe about our political opponents and to overlook possible flaws in, and reasonable objections to, that research. And this is a rather unusual study. Here’s the actual abstract:

The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. In Study 1, alcohol intoxication was measured among bar patrons; as blood alcohol level increased, so did political conservatism (controlling for sex, education, and political identification). In Study 2, participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than their no-load counterparts. In Study 3, time pressure increased participants’ endorsement of conservative terms. In Study 4, participants considering political terms in a cursory manner endorsed conservative terms more than those asked to cogitate; an indicator of effortful thought (recognition memory) partially mediated the relationship between processing effort and conservatism. Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.

There are many possible objections to this methodology, which, perhaps ironically, I’m not going to take the time and effort to spell out here. But I think this and other studies are likely on the right track, if only because they seem to confirm what I have observed for a very long time. When I have more time, I intend to dive into as many of these studies as I can because this whole issue really fascinates me.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    baal

    I wonder if there is a chicken and egg effect. I’d like to see an intervention study where they take liberals and conservatives and flip their exposure, i.e. force a conservative to pay attention to nice things and see if their brain states flip or moderate to a more liberal way of looking at things.
    There may be a parallel from drug treatment / stop smoking programs which espouse changing your environment. In this case, however, the theory is about avoiding behavioral triggers rather than intentional internal remodeling based on a changed external environment.

  2. 2
    Ray Ingles

    One other thing to keep in mind is that, even if all this turns out to be true, it doesn’t mean liberalism or conservatism is correct, or even more likely to be correct, in any particular situation.

  3. 3
    frog

    There is a bit of chicken-and-egging here, of course, as well as the nature-vs-nurture factors. The real test would be to compare “lifetime” conservatives and liberals to “converts”–people who were one or the other and then changed.

    And of course a rigid, law-and-order mentality doesn’t invariably lead to conservative thinking on all fronts. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, is a rigid, law-and-order kind of guy–it’s clear he would be a totalitarian if he could–but in general he is (was?) socially liberal. [I have the "was?" there because we haven't heard much from him lately. I don't know if he's been sucked into the conservative echo chamber. Or maybe he's quiet because he's still socially liberal, which doesn't play well in the current GOP.]

  4. 4
    eric

    It always hard with this stuff to tease out whether A is causing B, B is causing A, both are caused by some underlying factor C…or whether its just correlation without causation. :)

    But it does seem fairly clear to me that fundamentalist religious movements focus heavily on arugments from authority. They teach their people to respect (religious) authority figures, follow their lead, and use authority-based decision making methods in other aspects of their life (i.e., consult the bible). It also seems clear to me that authority-based methods for making decisions are quicker and lower-effort than critical analysis, and that at least at this time in US history, the dominant fundamentalist religious movements are conservative.

    So, one might back the train up a stop and say that religious extremism leads to low effort thought leads to conservatism.

  5. 5
    eric

    baal @1

    I’d like to see an intervention study where they take liberals and conservatives and flip their exposure

    I haven’t read the full articles but I think that’s implied in at least one of the study methodologies. AIUI they took people of both political bents and fired rapid questions at them. Then they took people of both political bents and encouraged/required them to think carefully about some question. This methodology means that liberals were ‘flipped’ into low-effort thinking modes and conservatives were ‘flipped’ into high-effort thinking modes, just as a matter of course. If the results truly show that both liberals and conservatives got more conservative in the rapid-fire phase, and that both liberals and conservatives got more liberal in the critical thinking phase, then I’d say that’s a pretty interesting result.

  6. 6
    Alverant

    I’d be worried about the “appeal to nature” logical fallacy. Conservative low-effort thought may be more natural, but so is eating food with your hands (sans-fork).

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    I took a stab at critically assessing this study earlier this year.

  8. 8
    Michael Heath

    Ray Ingles writes:

    One other thing to keep in mind is that, even if all this turns out to be true, it doesn’t mean liberalism or conservatism is correct, or even more likely to be correct, in any particular situation.

    Sure it means these ways of thinking can be correct or not. For example, the liberal mindset allows us seek out lessons and learn from our mistakes, while other approaches, like the closed mind of conservatives, fiercely resist adaptation. I suggest reading Bob Altemeyer’s Authoritarians for the bad and Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain to find the bad and also the good.

    While conservatives think and behave in a manner superior to liberals in a handful of areas, humanity simply couldn’t flourish if we didn’t have many humans who are liberal thinkers. In addition it is how U.S. conservatives think which now risk the well-being of humanity and life on this planet given their denialism of climate change, the need to mitigate the threat, and our ability to do so.

    It’s important we concede this point because many of these distinguishing attributes are learned. Our young can learn to be as conscientious and orderly as conservatives, while our young can also learn to be open to experience as liberals predominately are rather than closed. So our challenge is to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the various mindsets and adapt educative processes which fosters the good while dispensing with the bad.

  9. 9
    Brett McCoy

    I can vouch for #16… I don’t sleep except in 20 minute increments…

  10. 10
    Sastra

    When I read about studies like this I’m frequently reminded of similar studies comparing the thought habits of the religious/spiritual to those of the nonreligious/atheists. There aren’t a lot of them, but from what I’ve seen there are both some consistencies and some differences with this political divide.

    For instance, iirc one study suggested that the religious were more likely to be “intuitive” thinkers — who make quick judgments — and the nonreligious were more likely to be “deep” thinkers, forming but then slowly discarding an ‘obvious’ but wrong solution. Maybe. If so, looks a bit like what was found with this liberal-conservative brain divide.

    Wonder what would happen if they contrasted liberal religious people with liberal and/or conservative atheists? I mean, you could really play around with permutations here.

    (Assuming any of these studies are valid, of course.)

  11. 11
    Leo Buzalsky

    This is not merely due to one’s upbringing but is at least partly controlled by genetics and brain structure, though, quite frankly, I’m not really capable of evaluating the validity of those kinds of studies (many of them linked to above).

    Yeah…my thought on this is that isn’t brain structure at least partially influenced by upbringing?

  12. 12
    khms

    Interesting.

    What most surprised me is at how many points I thought “this is backwards” – this doesn’t match my intuition or experience.

    Such as:

    Those who are [...] prone to reacting very strongly to threats are more likely to cling to tradition, routine and authority and therefore more likely to be politically conservative.

    … doesn’t work for me, as authority (and sometimes tradition) land squarely on the “threat” side for me.

    quick, efficient, and “low effort” thought processes

    Isn’t that an oxymoron? Quick, efficient, low effort: pick two.

    I wonder how these results hold across cultures.

    Some of the words used sent up red flags for me, such as “natural” or “hedonistic”. Doesn’t have to mean something’s wrong, but it does make me suspicious.

    Somewhat off-topic, this reminds me of that test (using reaction speed, IIRC) as to how one felt about black vs. white people, and how everyone is supposedly racist, nobody is actually neutral. Except, that was exactly what I scored on that test: neutral. Maybe I’m just not typical enough? Not exactly a new idea …

  13. 13
    Ray Ingles

    Michael Heath –

    Sure it means these ways of thinking can be correct or not. For example, the liberal mindset allows us seek out lessons and learn from our mistakes, while other approaches, like the closed mind of conservatives, fiercely resist adaptation.

    “Going with your gut” is also low-effort but surprisingly accurate in many areas.

    The point is, the mode of reasoning isn’t directly relevant. The question is whether the reasoning reached the correct conclusion or not. See what Ed himself quoted here. I’m warning against using these results – even if confirmed – as a shortcut to establishing whether someone’s correct or wrong about something.

    As Ed put it: “The point is that you must first engage the argument on its own terms. Once you’ve defeated the argument, then it’s reasonable to point out that the inaccuracy of the claims may have been due to bias, or wishful thinking, or fear. But until you defeat the argument, you’re not really saying much of anything.”

  14. 14
    jonathangray

    Heh.

  15. 15
    Ichthyic

    “Going with your gut” is also low-effort but surprisingly accurate in many areas.

    that’s because, while many view “intuition” as some sort of 6th sense, while it most certainly is not.

    all intuition is is a gestallt of previous experience, applied to a new circumstance.

    it’s not at all surprising that it “works”, since this is typical of how all animals that can store and access long term memory react to new situations.

    that’s not to say, however, that it ALWAYS works, and likewise, that just using prior experiences will correctly inform one on any given new circumstance.

    This is why we also have the ability to reason.

  16. 16
    =8)-DX

    Were these US citizens? “Politically left” should be in scare quotes then…

  17. 17
    Valde

    I read conservative forums for fun, and there is a lot of disgust and fear levelled at anything ‘lefturd’ or ‘lieberal’.

    Overwhelming fear over the legalization of pedophilia and bestiality seem to be at the heart of many of these peoples worries (as gay marriage and contraception logically lead to legalized pedo/bestiality etc). If the world isn’t forced to follow the OT, well then God will punish everyone!

    So these people fret, and spend their lives living in terror, and blaming everything on the evil libs!

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