Is Your Brain Liberal or Conservative?


DIFFERENT BRAIN structures in liberals and conservatives affect how each processes information as well as their different cognitive strategies.  In theory, if we understood better how each other’s brains worked, we could communicate better—both with those of opposing views and in efforts to influence those of our own persuasion.

Political opponents differ in self-regulatory conflict monitoring, recognition of emotional faces and moral profiles—also in beer preferences, room organization and cleanliness and travel—a result of both genetic influences and environmental factors.

Political views are influenced by age as well as experiences of fear and anxiety occurring both in childhood and in current events. Because the brain is more plastic in youth, early exposure to fear and anxiety is likely to enlarge the brain’s emotional centers like the amygdala.  And after 9/11, Americans across the political spectrum became more conservative.

In the distribution of gray matter, liberal brains have greater volume in the anterior cingulate cortex—responsible for taking in new information and using that information to make choices, Weill-Cornell Medical College psychiatrist Gail Saltz told Salon. Conservatives, by contrast, have more volume in the right amygdala, making their choices more likely to be informed by fear-based responses.

Accurate prediction of political choices based on these brain structural size differences was higher than 70%—better than that achieved based on political preferences of the subjects’ parents, according to Saltz.

When asked to look at photographs, the eyes of conservatives lingered 15% longer on repellant images, such as car wrecks and excrement, in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study—“suggesting that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to assessing potential threats,” according to Scientific American.

In personality studies, “conservatives rate higher in areas of stability, loyalty, not liking change,” said Saltz.  Liberals, by contrast, have stronger ratings for liking change and basing decision-making on new information, such as scientific studies.

Comparing 22 self-identified liberals with the same number of conservatives, and controlling for age and ethnicity, a Northwestern University study found that the two groups solved a similar number of problems correctly but used different strategies, Northwestern cognitive psychologist Carola Salvi told Huffingtonpost.  Liberals were more likely to use “insight thinking,” defined as finding the solution without using a formalized strategy.  Conservatives relied more on analytical methods.

In a 2008 study of 76 college student bedrooms, conservatives owned more ironing boards and calendars, compared with liberals who had more books and travel-related memorabilia, according to research by New York University psychologist John Jost, reported in Scientific American.

Moral profiles of those belonging to the two political persuasions are also different: “Liberals tend to value equality, fairness and protecting the vulnerable,” according to the Huffington Post.  Conservatives, on the other hand, emphasize group loyalty and respect for authority along with patriotism and moral purity.

Their different world views, however, are equally grounded in ethics, writes NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind.”  The fairness valued by liberals means sharing resources equally, while for conservatives it means proportionality: people should get what they deserve based on the effort they have expended, according to Scientific American. Haidt wishes people could see that the opposing side is not immoral but instead is emphasizing different moral principles.

Political views, in addition, can be easily manipulated.  Republicans who were told to imagine that they possessed superpowers and were impermeable to injury became more liberal, according to a Yale University study described by Jost.

In the NYU research, conservatives were first told that climate change was not a challenge to government and industry but “a threat to the American way of life,” and then given a passage to read describing environmental action as patriotic.  Afterwards, they were more likely to sign petitions, for example, to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Voters of all persuasions can react emotionally, as in the across-the-board response to 9/11.  Emory psychologist Drew Westen points to the fallacy of believing the rational mind prevails when it comes to politics.   Westen contends that Democrats have been losing because they use laundry lists of policies and arguments bolstered with evidence, and they ignore emotional cues.  For example, he notes that the right side of John Edward’s mouth tends to curl up, a problem because “humans innately dislike facial asymmetries,” according to David Brooks’s review of Westen’s book “The Political Brain.”

Westen also points out how Republicans are adept at using words connected to strong emotions: Ronald Reagan used “freedom fighters” to describe the Nicaraguan Contras to get funding for them, and “confiscation” referring to taxes.

For now, Scientific American paraphrases humor columnist Dave Barry, emphasizing the great divide: “Republicans think of Democrats as godless, unpatriotic, Volvo-driving, France-loving, elitist latte guzzlers whereas Democrats dismiss Republicans as ignorant, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling religious fanatics.”

—Mary Carpenter
To read more of Mary Carpenter’s well-being columns, click here.

One thought on “Is Your Brain Liberal or Conservative?

  1. Lois B Morris says:

    So interesting!

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