Neuroscience to Explain Politics?

Interesting story today in the LA Times about the neuroscience of liberal vs. conservative college students:

In a simple experiment being 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.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” Scientists instructed them 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.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said 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.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a flip-flopper for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

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6 thoughts on “Neuroscience to Explain Politics?

  1. Anonymous

    I donno, this seems like really, really shoddy science – on both the social and neurological fronts – that dismisses tons of variables that would make up one’s beliefs. Plus the methods used to draw conclusions seem silly; are they actually comparing the almost reflexive decision-making process of a simple motor task to choosing to go to war or one’s level of religious tolerance? …because those concern different parts of the brain.Bleeecch. The development of the brain and the ways we’ve grown to think are really way too murky and complex to be so simply explained and categorized. There really might be differences in cognitive development between conservatives and liberals, but this study looks like one of the maaaany oversimplified and self-congratulatory studies in neuroscience and psychology.

  2. Anonymous

    I donno, this seems like really, really shoddy science – on both the social and neurological fronts – that dismisses tons of variables that would make up one’s beliefs. Plus the methods used to draw conclusions seem silly; are they actually comparing the almost reflexive decision-making process of a simple motor task to choosing to go to war or one’s level of religious tolerance? …because those concern different parts of the brain.

    Bleeecch. The development of the brain and the ways we’ve grown to think are really way too murky and complex to be so simply explained and categorized. There really might be differences in cognitive development between conservatives and liberals, but this study looks like one of the maaaany oversimplified and self-congratulatory studies in neuroscience and psychology.

  3. Anonymous

    Youre right that 43 students is a somewhat small sample size, but not throw-it-out small. Also, the sample size doesn’t have anything to do with how well confounding factors were accounted for.

  4. Anonymous

    Youre right that 43 students is a somewhat small sample size, but not throw-it-out small. Also, the sample size doesn’t have anything to do with how well confounding factors were accounted for.

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