10 September 2007

Liberal and Conservative Mindsets, Neurologically Speaking

An article in the LA Times over the weekend reports on a study published in Nature Neuroscience that shows neurological differences in brain activity between people who are relatively left- or right-wing politically.
Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgements 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. ... Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

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.
Although I have not yet read the study itself, I think that one should be very careful about assigning a value judgement on either type of cognitive processing. Equally, there is no suggestion of causality: that a person whose brain works a particular way necessarily associates with a political bent, or that a particular way of perceiving the world necessarily trains the brain to work in one way or the other. Still, as the article suggests, it may explain why a reasoned conversation between a die-hard conservative and a staunch liberal is so difficult to achieve.

Thanks Christine!
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3 comments:

garym said...

Curious. I don't know about the causality but I do wonder about the synchronicity of this posting in the Washington Post Neuroscience and Fundamentalism which pits brain imaging to convergent vs divergent thinking abilities.

garym said...

oops, sorry, it wasn't the Post. A good article, nonetheless. The Post article was a different but still interesting topic tangentally related to your reluctance to read the study you cited, an article on The Persistance of Myths and why people will choose to believe false causalities even when taught otherwise.

Mark said...

I think there's a lot of consistency among the articles (and yes, I did read the Nature article - I had not yet read it when I made the blog post). In lay terms, it seems that the issue is one's ability to accept and deal with inconsistency relative to one's extant knowledge, and that seems to be an individuated neurological trait.