Differences in Conservative and Liberal Brains
20 peer-reviewed studies show liberals and conservatives physiologically different
|In the 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies summarized below, researchers found that liberals and conservatives have different brain structures, different physiological responses to stimuli, and activate different neural mechanisms when confronted with similar situations.|
A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics.
A paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed.
There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. Behavioral and Brain Sciences / Volume 37 / Issue 03 / June 2014, pp 297- 307 http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/07/biology-ideology-john-hibbing-negativity-bias
A 2011 study by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai‘s group at University College Londonpublished in Current Biology, found a correlation between differences in political views and differences in brainstructures. Students who reported more ‘conservative’ political views tended to have larger amygdalae, a structure in the temporal lobes that performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotions. In addition, they found clusters in which gray matter volume was significantly associated with conservativism in the left insula and the right entorhinal cortex.
During risk-taking behavior, liberals have significantly greater brain activity in the left insula area, while conservatives have significantly greater brain activity in the right amygdala. Although the risk-taking behavior of Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives) did not differ, their brain activity did. Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala.
In fact, a two parameter model of partisanship based on amygdala and insula activations yields a better fitting model of partisanship than a well-established model based on parental socialization of party identification long thought to be one of the core findings of political science.
“In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala…
The amygdala has many functions, including fear processing. Individuals with a larger amygdala are more sensitive to fear, which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger amygdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief systems… our finding of an association between anterior cingulate cortex [ACC] may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty. One of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. Thus it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.”
Political conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking. When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient; these conditions promote conservative ideology… low-effort thought might promote political conservatism because its concepts are easier to process, and processing fluency increases attitude endorsement. Four studies support our assertion that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism… Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural.”
Conservatism is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while liberalism is focused on advancing positive outcomes. Conservatism is avoidance based; it is focused on preventing negative outcomes (e.g., societal losses) and seeks to regulate society via inhibition (restraints) in the interests of social order. Liberalism is approach based; it is focused on advancing positive outcomes (e.g., societal gains) and seeks to regulate society via activation (interventions) in the interests of social justice. Liberals are more open-minded and creative whereas conservatives are more orderly and better organized.
The moral foundations of liberals and conservatives
The theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Moral Politics How Liberals and Conservatives Think
At the center of the conservative worldview is a Strict Father model. “Strict father” morality emphasizes the importance of the traditional nuclear family with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set and enforce strict rules for the behavior of children. In this worldview, self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial qualities that children must learn. Reward and punishment factor strongly in this model for it is assumed that people, left to their own devices, will pursue selfish interests and will only make themselves act on behalf of others to gain rewards or avoid punishment.
The “nurturant parent” model, by contrast, stresses the importance of empathy, nurturance, fair distribution, and restitution. The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care. In this model, the obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents and their community, not out of the fear of punishment. Good communication is crucial because it is only when parents explain to their children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance that their authority is seen as legitimate.
It is natural for liberals to see the federal government as a strong nurturant parent, responsible for making sure that the basic needs of its citizens are met…. Social programs are also seen by liberals as ways for the government to simultaneously help people and strengthen itself. Liberals also conceptualize social programs as investments in communities…. Liberals also see many social programs as functioning to promote fairness.
Conservatives, on the other hand, apply the Strict Father model of parenting to the Nation As Family metaphor. To them, social programs amount to coddling people – spoiling them. Instead of having to learn to fend for themselves, people can depend on the public dole. This makes them morally weak, removing the need for self-discipline and willpower. Such moral weakness is a form of immorality. And so, conservatives see social programs as immoral, affirmative action included.
Conservative vs Liberal Brains 7 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH_zsMSJ-mQ
George Lakoff: Moral Politics 59 min. 17-45 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5f9R9MtkpqM
Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives 19 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs41JrnGaxc