Differences in brain activity of conservatives & liberals

Research suggests that liberals and conservatives have different personality traits and “cognitive styles”: while liberals are more intellectually curious and tolerant of ambiguity, conservatives have a greater desire to reach decisions quickly and are more consistent in the way they make those decisions.

A new study, published online today in Nature Neuroscience, suggests that there may be a neural basis for these differences in cognitive style. The study provides evidence that there are differences in the way the brains of liberals and conservatives respond to situations involving difficult decisions.

In the study, which was led by David Amodio of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at New York University,  43 participants who were first asked to score their political views on a scale of -5 to +5, with -5 being extremely libral and +5 being highly conservative.

They were then asked to perform a simple task in which they were presented with one of two letters on a computer screen. They were required to press one button if they saw the letter “M” and another if they saw a “W”. While this task was performed, the researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the participants’ brain activity.

This was repeated 500 times, with one of the letters being presented far more frequently – in 80% of the trials – than the other. By pressing the same button repeatedly, the participants established a routine response. But when the less frequent letter was presented, the correct response required a break in that routine.

It was found that those who considered themselves to be conservatives made more response errors when upon presentatin of the infrequent letters than those who considered themselves as liberals (respectively, 47% and 37% of the time).  

The EEG data showed that, during the trials in which the infrequent letter was presented, the anterior cingulate cortex (AAC) was twice as active in liberals than in conservatives.

The ACC is one of the brain’s executive control centres, and is hypothesized to be involved in detecting and signalling conflicts in information processing. So liberals showed significantly more conflict-related brain activity when confronted with a situation in which they are required to break an old habit.

This does not mean, however, that differences in ACC activity are directly correlated to political orientation. Although the brain mechanisms underlying conflict monitoring are already in place at a very early age, the environment is also likely to have a major influence political views.   

Reference:

Amodio, D. M., et al. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nat. Neurosci. doi:10.1038/nn1979. [Abstract]

21 thoughts on “Differences in brain activity of conservatives & liberals

  1. Causality may be confusing too, I would think; perhaps something about the sorts of things that get empahsized and valued for those growing up in conservative vs. liberal homes effects the direction of brain development.
    I’d be interested to invent a time machine and scan myself 15 years ago as compared to myself now. I’m much more liberal politically now than I was then, although I still am probably among one of the more conservative of the science bloggers….

  2. I wonder if there was any correlation between gender, age or race of the participants.
    From the supplementary methods: “A measure of political attitudes was embedded in a larger set of personality and attitudes surveys completed at the every beginning of the experimental session.”
    Perhaps there were any other correlations? I wonder what the odds were of a stastically significant finding given the number of personality and attitude surveys.

  3. One problem I have with tying liberalism and conservatism to heritable brain features is that that makes it difficult to explain why liberalism and conservatism seem to be concentrated in certain regions (e.g. liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West). I doubt that these regions are reproductionally isolated from each other–there’s gotta be a lot of genes flowing back and forth between all parts of America, right? So then how is it that certain political orientations show such strong correlation with geography. And why the urban/rural differences in political orientation?

  4. I suspect this is measuring something on the level of temperament, or the underlying factors thereof. This might well be correlated to political stance.

  5. I am afraid many folks have complicated belief systems and sticking them with either label is a gross oversimplification and not an accurate description of such beliefs. This is right up there with the study confirming men choose attractive woman as partners in regards to its usefulness. Have we nothing else to study that could actually provide useful information? I suspect this was funded with tax dollars….ugh.

  6. That’s an interesting study — thanks for posting it. (It must have been hellishly boring to be a study subject!)
    I think that it illustrates two phenomena, the correlation between brain activity and what we observe as well as the limitations in studying the substrate for complex functions.
    Various studies also suggest or demonstrate correlations between political conservativism, absolute moralism, dogmatic theism, and obedience to authority.
    My personal observation through debates with conservative-creationist-religionists is that their chief area of flexibility manifests in slippery illogic. In order to protect/argue for a rigid moralistic/theistic/creationistic stance, they adjust their “facts” to fit their preconceived notions and their worldviews exhibit considerable philosophical tension.
    The study suggests that they are doing this because they have difficulty adjusting the initial concept (God Did It and God Says So) to accommodate contradictory new information. I’d hypothesize that the lower inactivity in the ACC allows them to adjust the “truth” in this way because they don’t experience “I’m being illogical” alarms over untruths.

  7. Wes “One problem I have with tying liberalism and conservatism to heritable brain features is that that makes it difficult to explain why liberalism and conservatism seem to be concentrated in certain regions (e.g. liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West).”
    I think that the answer to that does not necessarily run counter to the study’s findings. If you only look at whether or not the individual happens to be a political Conservative (easier for studies), then you are ignoring the influence of the do-as-you-are told and believe-what-you-are-told tendency that probably lies at the heart of the issue and which would logically result in unthinking adherence to ambient ideologies. (If the study had asked the participants to self-report on rigidity of attitudes and unthinking obedience to untenable ideas, then the results would have been skewed by self-flattery.)
    About 15 years ago I read a report on a research article that I have since, regrettably, been unable to find. The article concerned studies of the genetic inheritance of character traits and the researchers reported, to their surprise, that willingness to obey authority was the parameter with highest heritability. This would make sense if the genetic variable merely affected levels of ACC activity.
    (Interestingly, I wonder if this could tie into the heritability of Asperger’s syndrome.)
    Populations are mobile, so liberal thinkers might be more likely to move to areas known to have a high proportion of liberal thinkers and vice versa. (I, for example, would never contemplate moving to the Bible Belt, while Bible Belters might not fancy the North East.)
    So, there could be a variety of influences at work to account for the preponderance, but not 100% prevalence, of liberalism in the North East and conservatism in the Mid West. These influences might cloud the picture without falsifying the experimental findings.

  8. … conservatives made more response errors … than … liberals (respectively, 47% and 37% of the time)…

    So Trent Lott would receive an “F” on this test, while Barbara Boxer would rate a “D”?
    A 10% difference in the error rate is a very slender hook from which to hang such weighty conclusions, especially given the high number of other potentially confounding variables.
    For example, I think I might have scored very highly in this study – but not because my politics are “progressive”, just because I used to work as a copy editor. A flaming reactionary with job experience as a USDA food inspector in an egg factory would probably do even better.

  9. It’s not entirely about the error rates. The most important part of this study, as I read it, is the correlation between heightened ACC activity and error rates decreasing. Lower error rates and higher ACC activity are related in this study.

  10. Neuropolitics, the last neuro-hyphenation, could be a promising emergent field to answer satisfactorily what Aristotle describing humans called “zoon politikon” as an essential characteristic of human behaviour.
    But what can be the holy grail of this burgeoning science is if political ideology can be traced in our genetic endowment something akin to political gene, or, on the contrary, is something that culture fortifies trhough enculturization (the never gone away distinction nurture Vs nature). Another line for research programme is wether political ideology can change trhough the life-span or wether it is associated with psychopatology (i think all politicians are seeking power by means not necessarily morally or even healthy ones)
    Also if neuroimaging progress to the stage of detecting evry psychological state that a human can harbour, perhaps neuropolitics can prevent people like Bush ruling a country.

  11. Yes, liberals are ALWAYS smarter. Funny how that works in every study from liberal college student and professors, and yet every policy they stand behind results in more suffering and hardship for everyone in the long term.
    In fact they are so much smarter that they can understand the rationale for saving a species of animal, but play ignorant about the bedroom genocide of human species, and the differences between races.
    So in effect liberals will believe any study which makes them appear smarter, but would never give any credence to an study which shows one race to be smarter than another. You hippies are malicious liars who warp scientific results in your favor just as badly as they religious fanatics.
    Make sure you forget to post this because of all the hundreds of responses (19) you get, and not because it disagrees with your stance.
    43 participants sheesh. I could get 25 retards, 25 blind people and 25 geriatrics have them say they are liberals and prove the opposite point.

  12. I’m trying to think of another political group in history that used science to prove that they were better than everyone else… Oh yeah, the Nazi party.

  13. Funny how conservatives always take offense when forced to observe facts, based on research. Is it any wonder they’re a dying breed. It’s called survival of the fittest. Also known as evolution. No one here is claiming superiority, but apparently you’re not wired to see it that way. Your end response begs to, in fact show, that you are incapable of comprehending progress, science, and fact.

Comments are closed.