Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives
From the page” ….”Let’s assume, for sake of discussion, that all of the data in these studies hold. What would that imply?
Past studies, as well as the ones mentioned here, have shown that liberals are more likely to respond to “informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty”. Considering the role of the ACC in conflict monitoring, error detection, and pattern recognition/ evaluation, this would make perfect sense. Liberals, according to this model, would be likely to engage in more flexible thinking, working through alternate possibilities before committing to a choice. Even after committing, if alternate contradicting data comes along, they would be more likely to consider it. Sound familiar? This is how science works, and why there might be so many correlations between scientific beliefs (and lesser belief in religion) and tendency to be liberal. Is this a hard and fast rule? Of course not. But you can see the group differences overall.
Now let’s look at the other side. Conservatives, more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, would tend to process information initially using emotion. According to Kanai,
Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala.
So, when faced with an ambiguous situation, conservatives would tend to process the information initially with a strong emotional response. This would make them less likely to lean towards change, and more likely to prefer stability. Stability means more predictability, which means more expected outcomes, and less of a trigger for anxiety.
Liberals, though, tend toward unpredictability. They don’t mind change, and in fact, they prefer it. They seek it out. This personality type would likely choose “change” over “stability” just because they tend to be more novelty-seeking by nature. The fact that they have a more prominent ACC helps them to deal with radically changing situations, still find the salient points, all without the emotion getting in the way. These individuals are the compartmentalizers, the logic-driven ones, while the conservatives are the ones driven by emotion and empathy.
What does this boil down to in practical terms?
In order for a person to embrace a cause or idea, it needs to be meaningful for them. Each type of person has a different way that they assign meaning and relevance to ideas. Let’s take liberals and conservatives, since we are theorizing that they are two distinct thinking styles: liberals would be more flexible and reliant on data, proof, and analytic reasoning, and conservatives are more inflexible (prefer stability), emotion-driven, and connect themselves intimately with their ideas, making those beliefs a crucial part of their identity (we see this in more high-empathy-expressing individuals). This fits in with the whole “family values” platform of the conservative party, and also why we see more religious folks that identify as conservatives, and more skeptics, agnostics, and atheists that are liberal. Religious people are more unshakable in their belief of a higher power, and non-religious people are more open to alternate explanations, i.e., don’t rely on faith alone.
So – for liberals to make a case for an idea or cause, they come armed with data, research studies, and experts. They are convinced of an idea if all the data checks out – basically they assign meaning and value to ideas that fit within the scientific method, because that’s their primary thinking style. Emotion doesn’t play as big of a role in validation. Not to say that liberals are unfeeling, but just more likely to set emotion aside when judging an idea initially, and factor it in later. Checks out scientifically = valuable. Liberals can get just as emotionally attached to an idea, but it’s usually not the primary trigger for acceptance of an idea.
Conservatives would be less likely to assign value primarily using the scientific method. Remember, their thinking style leads primarily with emotion. In order for them to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy. Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.
A Reminder: This is not meant as a criticism or an endorsement for one style over the other, but merely pointing out that there are definite differences between groups in primary thinking or processing style. Also, this data was assumed to be correct for the sake of this hypothetical discussion….”