Inside the Conservative Brain

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cat Scan Images of Brain

Conservatives and liberals think differently and I don't mean on the pressing issues of our times. I mean that our brains literally function differently. The latest study attesting to these cognitive differences can be found in the LA Times.

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." They were instructed 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.

I'm not a researcher, but I have to wonder if this test was entirely fair. I can't help thinking that putting a W in front of a right-winger would trigger a Pavlovian response and skew the results.



Assuming that the proper controls were, in fact, implemented, this study is one in a growing body of research showing that there is a genuine difference in the way liberals and conservatives are wired. Conservatives appear to be more rigid and fixed in their ideas, whereas liberals are more open to new concepts. It may also explain their tendency to move in lockstep and not question authority.

As per John Dean, "While not all conservatives are authoritarians, all highly authoritarian personalities are political conservatives." A hat tip to RightwingFucktard for finding this gem. Dean's new series in Findlaw is based on his research into the role of authoritarianism in the modern Republican Party. Dean, a Goldwater conservative, who testified against his former boss President Richard M. Nixon, authored the searing indictment of a Republican Party gone wrong, Conservatives Without Conscience. In the first part of a three part series on central findings of his study, Dean writes:

There are two types of authoritarians: leaders (the few) and followers (the many). Study of these personalities began following World War II, when social psychologists asked how so many people could compliantly follow an authoritarian leader like Adolf Hitler and tolerate the Holocaust. Early research was based at the University of California, Berkeley, and it focused primarily on followers, culminating in the publication of a The Authoritarian Personality (1950) - a work that broadly described authoritarian personalities. The book was quite popular for decades, but as the Cold War ended, it had been on the shelf and ignored for a good while.

. . .

At the outset of Conservatives Without Conscience, I provided a quick and highly incomplete summary of Altemeyer's findings, explaining that his empirical testing revealed "that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, anti-equality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral." To be clear, these are not assessments that Altemeyer makes himself about these people; rather, this is how those he has tested reveal themselves to be, when being anonymously examined.

[Bob] Altemeyer has tested literally tens of thousands of first-year college students and their parents, along with others, including some fifteen hundred American state legislators, over the course of some three decades. He has tested in the South and North of the United States. There is no database on authoritarians that even comes close in its scope to that which he has created, and, more importantly, these studies are empirical data, not partisan speculation.