Nature Neuroscience has reported on an experiment that is being touted as proving that “liberals” are smarter than “conservatives.” Or, as the LATimes’ Denise Gallene states, “that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.”
I wonder whether these findings mean that all those visual field tests we’ve been doing could be affected? Which group would be more likely to have a skewed “blind spot”? For that matter, did the researchers have one of their own?
From a review in the LA Times:
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.
Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.
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.”
Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.
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.
Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.
The article is “currently unavailable online,” but the website instructs us to contact subscriptions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hopefully this is some sort of elaborate practical joke. The potential weaknesses at the least include drawing conclusions from hand to eye coordination to poorly defined political affiliations among the self-described college students. I wonder about the “n” of the college students who call themselves “conservative.” How many could there be? Would libertarians call themselves liberal or conservative?
In the meantime, here’s the abstract:
Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism
David M Amodio (1), John T Jost (1), Sarah L Master (2) & Cindy M Yee (2)
1.Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA. 2. Department of Psychology, 1285 Franz Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.
Hat Tip to BioEdge, an email newsletter.