I’m pretty convinced that in the end, political attitudes are not determined based on rational choices or a weighing of evidence, but are derived from mentality, or ‘character’ (whatever that may be). You almost instinctively feel drawn to a certain strand of political thought, and have an inherent dislike to some others. I, for instance, am naturally freaked out by most versions of conservatism, particularly when they stress authority (and want to impose group beliefs). While I may have a lot of factual evidence or logical reasoning to ‘prove’ conservative or right wing prescriptions for society are wrong, ultimately it may come down to the fact that as a person, I don’t wish to be told what’s right by some group or authority, and value individual freedom and open-mindedness. That’s why I instinctively don’t like conservatism or ‘the right’.
But where does that come from? A while ago, we posted about cognitive neuroscientific research showing that conservatives or right-wingers have bigger amygdalas – the part of the brain that regulates fear and stress. Liberals or left-wingers, on the other hand, were shown to have bigger medial prefrontal cortexes, which suppresses fear. Science Daily now reports about a new article in Current Biology, demonstrating pretty much similarly that differences in political orientation may be tied to differences in brain structure.
Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.
“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said Ryota Kanai of the University College London. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”
Kanai said his study was prompted by reports from others showing greater anterior cingulate cortex response to conflicting information among liberals. “That was the first neuroscientific evidence for biological differences between liberals and conservatives,” he explained.
There had also been many prior psychological reports showing that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences. Kanai’s team suspected that such fundamental differences in personality might show up in the brain.
Pretty much ties in with what you already know about people from certain political persuasions, eh? In my experience it does, at least.
Some caveats though. First, the liberal-conservative divide is very much an Anglo-American construct. While I believe that - in terms of attitudes at least – it corresponds by and large to the ‘left’ and ‘right’-wing divide in continental Europe (which, despite nuances, pretty much exists, let’s be honest), it’s not exactly the same. Where does socialism fit the bill, for example? I may describe myself as left-wing, but definitely not as a socialist, while some other left-wingers would. The difference between us is probably how we value the role of the state in society and believe in the necessity of material equality. But how could that be fitted in the fear/non-fear conservative-liberal divide described above?
Secondly, and most obviously, there’s the question to what extent upbringing and life experiences play a part in determining political attitude (and may perhaps even affect brain structure).
Interesting research though. It may explain why, even though you know and like someone very well, you still can’t get exactly to the bottom of why that person has different attitudes about something. Trying to explain that in terms of character traits can, I think, deliver interesting results.