So people are talking about conservative brains again…

This is a topic I find simultaneously fascinating and annoying. There is some evidence that conservatives and progressives- as defined in the U.S. – have differences in brain function that match differences in thought and behavior. Basically, conservatives seem to have a stronger threat response, and the related portions of the brain tend to be a bit bigger. According to the scientist in the video clip below, conservatives are also less likely to respond to strong emotional reactions with the kind of self-assessment that might help them spot misinformation designed to provoke those strong reactions. We don’t know if brain differences cause conservative thinking, or if the patterns of conservative thinking cause the brain differences.

I want to note that the language I’m using IS biased – I am quite certain that conservatives are wrong about the things on which we disagree, and I’m also reasonably certain that most of my readers are not conservative. I am writing from my own perspective on this, but one could just as easily switch this around and talk about “liberals” having a less developed amygdala or overdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

I think it’s good to know this stuff about ourselves as a species, and some of what Azarian says about how to deal with that is fine. I think he’s right about needing to put more effort into encouraging self-assessment and introspection as a way to build up the parts of the brain that might temper a threat response with what Terry Pratchett might call “second thoughts” – a meta-assessment of not just the thing that created the initial emotional reaction, but also of the reaction itself.

Where he loses me is when he starts talking about focusing on the things we agree about, rather than our differences, and using that as a starting point to have us all getting along, and uniting humanity under a materialistic understanding of reality. My objection is not because of the goal. I am firmly convinced that material analysis of our circumstances is vitally important, and the lack of that on the political/religious right is a serious problem.


There’s an anecdote I saw a while back about a neuroscientist who was studying chicken brains, found that they don’t deal with smell the way we do, and concluded that chickens don’t have nostrils. This was rebutted by chicken farmers, who pointed out that a lifetime of working with chickens had left them quite certain that chickens do, in fact, have nostrils. The neuroscientist had focused entirely on the chickens’ brains, and hadn’t looked at the entire creature.

I couldn’t find where I initially read that account, and at this point I think it may well be false, or I’m mis-remembering it, but it gets at a reasonably common problem among those who have put in the effort to become experts in a particular specialization. It seems that becoming an expert – especially in a field known to be “difficult” – sometimes leads people to believe their expertise covers subjects in which they are not specialists.

In this case, I think that Azarian’s “plan” is hampered by an ignorance of sociology and politics.

To begin with, I think it’s strange that he talks as if getting everyone to agree on how the world works is a new idea. It’s also strange to me that he believes we can change how people think by applying a Bayesian system, as though the people whose minds he want to change are going to happily go through HIS process, unlike every previous attempt at something similar. He’s right about the problems caused by overstating certainty, but he seems to ignore the way right-wing propagandists have exploited the honest assessments of uncertainty that are the norm in scientific literature (evolution and climate science being possibly the most famous examples). He also seems to have no idea about the material factors in society that lead to misinformation campaigns designed specifically to confuse and obscure not just the truth, but also our processes for determining the truth. In a lot of ways, this feels like someone saying “We need to solve climate change by replacing fossil fuels with a mix of nuclear and renewable energy”, and then acting like the work is done.

It would be nice if everyone took a rational approach to analyzing every situation and claim, but that’s an end goal, not a plan for getting there. This makes Azarian just another voice in the chorus of people convinced that they could save the world if only everyone agreed with them.

But I think it’s actually a bit worse than that. Azarian says we should focus on our areas of agreement to avoid the emotional chain reactions that come with confrontation and disagreement. Again, this feels like a very surface-level analysis. Yes – we all get along better when we all suppress those parts of ourselves that cause conflict. And no – that has never been a viable path to changing people’s opinions or thought patterns. To begin with, if your primary approach to change relies on changing how hundreds of millions of people think, then the best-case scenario has your process of change taking several generations to really take effect. Humans don’t live in “the long term”. We can and should make plans for the long term, and work for the long term, but we’re stuck living in the present. Saying that the solution is to focus on areas of agreement also means that people who are being hurt by the way society works today should shut up about it for the sake of getting along.

This is as irrational an expectation as saying that people will always react calmly and thoughtfully when you tell them they’re wrong.

Take the example of Schrödinger’s Douchebag; that guy who will say something that sounds bigoted, and then decide whether they meant it based on the reaction of the group. If anyone pushes back, “it was just a joke!”, and if no one does, then everyone agrees it’s true. If you also push back on the idea that their bigotry is “just a joke”, then you’re the one causing conflict, because you can’t take a joke.

The fact is that there are people who like the world as it is, and they tend to be people who have a lot of power and material wealth. This is where you get twisted narratives like this one, demonstrated by Stephen King:

This is all wrong. The bill that Sinema and Manchin are obstructing is already a compromise – it’s already less than 70%, and the two “moderates” who are blocking everything are the ones refusing to accept anything less than 100% of what they want. For weeks now people have been blaming progressives for what’s going on. More recent tweets indicate that King may have gained a better understanding about what’s happening, but it’s not just an accident that he came to tweet that – it’s a deliberately false narrative of a kind that comes up every time U.S. progressives actually fight for something they want. Failing to concede to all right-wing demands is consistently framed as starting trouble and being unreasonable, and without real confrontation, what we get is movement to the right on economics and political power, over and over again.

This notion that we can just convert conservatives to rationality and material analysis by helping them reason through things is not a new one. What stands out in my mind is a sort of “Logic Bro” power fantasy found in the fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The basic premise is “what if Petunia had become a college professor and married another college professor, and they both raised Harry as a scientific child prodigy?”, and basically uses the shallowness of J.K. Rowling’s worldbuilding to allow Harry to perform feats of science-inspired magic and cleverness that astound and baffle all the greatest wizards, while he also uses the titular “methods of rationality” to reason Draco Malfoy out of his bigotry. Full disclosure, I enjoyed this story when I first read it. I also find it mostly unreadable now, but there’s something catchy about the idea that if we could just get the people we disagree with to just sit down and walk through everything with us, they’d see that of course they couldn’t be right.

I’m fond of saying that our brains are basically meat computers vulnerable to some level of reprogramming by anyone with access to our senses, including ourselves. Changing minds via one-on-one exploration of ideas is absolutely possible, if both parties are approaching the project in good faith. Changing minds on a larger scale through media is also possible.

But that’s not the same as changing how society works, or how power is exercised. It also doesn’t account for those – like fascists – who are less interested in what is or is not true than they are in the assertion of power over others. Unfortunately, all the reasonableness and non-violence in the world won’t help much if someone wants everyone who believes what you do dead, and they have the power to make it happen.

There is no silver bullet here. There’s no “weird trick” or “scientific technique” that will unite humanity under a common purpose. Worse, Azarian’s idea of focusing on a “common enemy”, even one as abstract as climate change or poverty, strikes me as downright irresponsible.

First, agreeing on climate change as a common enemy is unlikely to happen so long as the capitalists funding misinformation and obstruction retain the power to do so. They have no reason to change their minds, because the way things are is working just great, as far as they’re concerned. In the words of Rex Tillerson, their philosophy is “we’ll adapt to that”, so let’s keep drilling.

Second, and more importantly, agreeing on common problems and common enemies is a very dangerous approach. For example – fascists and socialists in the early 20th century agreed that capitalism wasn’t working, and that the people in charge were doing things wrong, and focused on the wrong goals.

Common enemy, common problem.

The solution was the difference that mattered. Socialists wanted to find a way to democratize the economy, and fascists wanted to return to a nonexistent golden age, and murder the bad people who were making the bad things happen. For all the Nazis actively pursued privatization and further empowerment of capitalists, their version of agreeing that capitalism had a problem can be found in the works of Gottfried Feder, whose work “Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft“, or “Breaking Interest Bondage” advocated against the “collection” of capital (particularly through charging interest), as different from “creation” of capital which was done by fine, upstanding German workers and businessmen.

This was just a repurposed version of the same kind of antisemitism found in “A Merchant of Venice”, and meshed very well with the broader Nazi movement to blame all the world’s woes on a global Jewish Conspiracy. It was also Feder’s justification for seizing the property of Jewish Germans.

If your focus is on finding agreement, and especially if you ignore issues of social justice and injustice, then what you have in Weimar Germany is a left that hates capitalism, and a right that hates capitalism – they agree on a problem! And in observing that, you are no closer to achieving any form of universal understanding. Having a “common enemy” is useless if one group wants to radically change how society works to reduce our contribution to the problem, and another group wants to murder people who’re different until the problem goes away.

Let’s break it down further – we know that climate change is going to cause food shortages. It’s already hurting agriculture, and that’s only going to get worse as the temperature rises. My solution would be to invest heavily in weather-proof food production on a global scale, without regard for profit. Things like edible algae and bacterial cultures (usually sold in powder/flour form) aren’t necessarily the most delicious food, but they are something that can act as a backstop on famine. Further, having such facilities in every part of the world means that even if several areas are hit by  problems that shut down both conventional agriculture and food factories – wildfires, storms, war, etc. – it’s far more likely that the rest of the world will have the resources to both feed themselves and to provide food to those in need.

What’s the fascist solution? We’ve already seen some of it. When refugees came north from Guatemala fleeing both violence and drought, they wanted not just a wall that would stop the refugees, they wanted that wall electrified, and they talked about the refugees as an invasion that should be met with military force. The fascist solution is to kill people so there will be more food to go around for those who remain. This is both wholly unacceptable, and entirely useless for solving the problem.

Uniting against a common enemy is all well and good when that enemy is a group of people who are attacking. Despite the rabid anti-communism in the U.S. government (remember – the “Allied Powers” invaded Russia in 1918 in an attempt to prevent the Bolsheviks from holding power), the Americans joined with the U.S.S.R. to defeat the Nazis. The problem is, that unity only lasts as long as the enemy, and it only works if it’s an actual enemy who can be defeated through force of arms. Insofar as that applies to climate change, who’s the enemy?

I’ve been clear that I think the enemy is the capitalists who are working to maintain the system that keeps them in power. My solution is to take their power away as soon as possible, so that they can’t spread misinformation and buy politicians to prevent action on climate change that might hurt their profits. My preference is to do that nonviolently, but I’m not particularly optimistic; history has shown that capitalists generally prefer murder to losing their wealth. The fascist solution is to give all that power to an authoritarian, so he (and it always does seem to be a “he”) can “do what must be done”, which invariably means “do violence to the right people”.

To be clear, I do not think that Bobby Azarian is a fascist. I think that his work on brain differences is good, and useful. His thoughts on how provoking genuine self-analysis can “strengthen” the relevant parts of the brain are also good and useful. What’s lacking is a deeper understanding of how human thought manifests as behavior within a society. Even that, by itself, is not that big of a problem – specialization is a good thing overall – but in developing his “solution” to the problem of conservative thought, I think he has shown the failure of his own system – he thinks his analysis is good enough to be presented as a solution, when in reality he’s missing data at the “input” end, and he doesn’t even seem to know those data exist to be analyzed.

If you like my work, please share it around. I’d also ask that you sign up to support me at Even as little as one dollar per month helps a great deal with there’s a crowd of folks doing it, and my immigration status is such that I can’t get conventional wage labor, so this is my only means of income, and it’s not enough to make ends meet right now. That said, you’re having your own trouble making ends meet, I do not want your money and I still welcome you as a reader. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourselves and each other.


  1. consciousness razor says

    The thing is, I do think that we should give people adequate reasons/justifications for the policy choices that we want to implement. Political arguments should be conducted in a sort of “rational” (and peaceful, deliberative, democratic) process of some sort, although that doesn’t imply that they should be bereft of any “emotional” content or anything else other than the evidence which could help to make things more persuasive or more palatable to people.

    Importantly, they also don’t need to already agree with you! It doesn’t need to be a part of anybody’s “common ground.” I don’t need anything sciencey to back that statement up. That just defeats one of the main purposes of providing any reasoning at all, if the other person is already assumed to have whatever they need to reach agreement. That’s why the “centrists” (or crypto-fascists) who say this sort of stuff always come off as authoritarian to me: all such reasoning is superfluous for them, so just do whatever they want and shut up about the rest. They’re not giving you friendly advice about “the other side” — it’s about themselves and their own thought process. And you get no apologies, no explanations, really nothing except “lick my boots.”

    Anyway, I don’t think of “rational argument” in this sense as some sort of concrete plan or a strategy for winning politically or whatever. It doesn’t tell you much of anything about other things you should be doing to make it a reality, ways that you should be organizing, other ways that you should be communicating, and so forth.

    Also, obviously, I might lose the argument! That can happen in a democratic system. And it may be that my reasoning isn’t good enough or that my opponent’s is merely better. You just have to find out, by considering each other’s arguments.

    Even if I did lose the argument, though, I could still win in the ballot box anyway. It happens all of the time. However, it’s a bit of Pyrrhic victory, when this sort of “win” means getting policies that you thought you wanted which are actually unreasonable, ill-conceived, unproductive, unenforceable, etc. Because you can’t turn something into a good plan that really works simply by telling yourself “hooray, we won” or “heh, we sure fooled them (and ourselves too).” If it ever does work that way, you got very lucky.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I come to this question from the perspective of an educator. Frankly, once conservatives get past 25 or so, it’s probably too late — by that time they’ve built up their mental defenses so much that it’s unlikely they will change. But if a college student brought up as a strict conservative gets exposed to a variety of worldviews between the ages of 17 and 23 or so, is it possible that they’ll switch to a more liberal perspective? Absolutely — it happens all the time.

    Of course, if I just try to hammer home some liberal dogma or another, their preprogrammed defenses will spring up and they’ll stop listening. But my hope is that teaching them critical thinking skills, like learning how to evaluate sources and argue both sides of a question, along with exposure to authors and perspectives from different backgrounds, just might do the trick.

    I don’t know if making them aware of research like this would trip the conservative mental land mines. But asking a question like “When was the last time you remember seeing someone using fear to try to influence peoples’ beliefs or behavior?” can lead to some interesting class discussions that might make them think.

  3. flex says

    Wow. Just reading the letter in Nature Human Behavior from Nam is a trip. Their initial conclusion was at P = 0.045, which is a marginal result and frankly in a behavioral paper I would call it publishable but questionable. Then their follow-up study, with a more diverse population but about the same raw numbers cropped up with a P = 0.001? That suggests to me that their methodology is not robust. They claim to have corrected for age, sex, and global brain volume, but they don’t explicitly show how. In fact, it looks like they used correlation factors from a previous study done in 2011. I’m not going to bother to look up that study, but if they just used mean nominal factors from a previous study their own correlation should include the confidence intervals from that study. Which would probably push their P-value way up. And reading between the lines, it looks like the participants in study 2 had a wider age range than study 1. So a small mistake in how the correction factors are applied could result in some fairly dramatic differences. I’d call the letter interesting, and something for graduate students to keep working on, but hardly a strong enough correlation to suggest that we could just perform brain scans to determine how liberal a person is. I mean, look at the data points on Fig 1 and Fig 2, that trend line is misleading.

    I agree with your overall skepticism that a shared problem is common ground. The approach to the solution for a problem matters much more.

  4. says

    I feel like to whatever degree this kind of research may be reliable, it’s not telling us anything that wasn’t already observable from conservative behaviour.

    The general right-wing focus on strength, self defense, and fighting “others” does a fine job pointing to a hyper-awareness of threats. Ditto the fascist obsession with disgust and humiliation.

    Obviously I agree that we need rational discussion and policy making, to the greatest degree possible, it’s just that that’s more of an end goal than a strategy to get there.

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