Liberal Brain, Conservative Brain?

by | Oct 1, 2007 | Psychology | 0 comments

In a fascinating study published in Nature Neuroscience online entitled: Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism, David M. Amodio at NYU and others at UCLA found intriguing evidence that liberals and conservatives actually have differing brain function.

I was able to download the full study, which was a randomized study involving 43 right handed participants. (Left-handed people can have different functional brain activity.) During the study, half the participants were shown “W” or “M” images on a computer screen, and told to push a button if they saw a “W” and not push the button if they saw an “M”. They were shown a random pattern of “W”s and “M”s where “W”s outnumbered “M”s by about 4:1. Incorrect responses generated an error message. The other half of the participants were given opposite instructions, and the opposite pattern. The correct and incorrect responses were tallied, and it was found that those who had identified themselves as “strongly liberal” had a strong tendency to perform better on this test than those who identified themselves as “strongly conservative”. Also, the more “liberal” participants tended to have a higher degree of excitation in the dorsal anterior cingulate when presented with the less-frequent letter. This would suggest that liberals “noticed” the unusual letter more strongly than conservatives.

While the study is relatively small, the authors point out that there have been other studies which have begun to point out consistent differences in liberals and conservatives on behavioral tests.

I find this very interesting, because it suggests that differences between conservatives and liberals may not only be in how they interpret their environments, but also in how they perceive their environments based on neural functioning.

So can one say that liberals’ brains function better than conservatives’ brains? Well, the answer is not so clear cut. First of all, it is a single study, and will need to be replicated to confirm the findings. Secondly, there was variation: Some liberals did fairly poorly on this test, some conservatives did fairly well. And finally, the trait of enhanced recognition of “unusual” stimulus may or may not be survival enhancing, depending on the circumstance. Sometimes its better to ignore the exception, at least for the time being (“The show must go on!”), and other times its important to pay careful attention to exceptions (“Stop the presses!”).

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