Sep 12 2007

Is Politics All in the Brain?

Over the last few decades there have been a number of studies looking at the neurology of political affiliation. This week Nature Neuroscience published a very interesting study looking at this very question. What they found is that self-identified liberals have a greater capacity for what neuroscientists call conflict resolution than self-identified conservatives.

The study had subjects rate themselves from -5 (very liberal) to +5 (very conservative) and then gave them tasks that involve waiting for the letter “M” to appear on a computer screen and then hitting a key. However, 20% of the time the letter “W” appeared instead. This is a “Go – No Go” task – it requires the subject to wait for the proper stimulus, but also be able to inhibit the response if the wrong stimulus appears. What they found is that liberals were better at not responding to the W’s than conservatives, and this correlated to activity in the relevant brain structures.

The study itself is very narrow in terms of the data it generated, but of course it invites wild speculation. Does this mean that liberals are more adaptive to change and comfortable with the unknown, while conservatives are more rigid and inflexible? Maybe. But the more we try to extrapolate to complex ideology or behavior from such a simple task the shakier our conclusions become, and the more cautious we have to be.

An LA Times report of the study quoted scientist Frank Sulloway (not involved with this study), writing:

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.


This is what the study authors wrote:

Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation.”


I understand that the mainstream media needs to spice up the dry reporting of a technical article like this, but I found it almost laughable to use the findings in this study to explain Bush’s foreign policy and Kerry’s campaign strategy.

What does this kind of research mean? It is, to say the least, very complex. It is an area I have been interested in, and I will give you the less-than-definitive, skeptical clinical neurologist’s view.

One question this raises is the big question of nature vs. nurture – how much of what we are is genetic and hard-wired vs. learned and cultural? Like any serious thinker on this topic, I have to say that we are a complex mixture of these two – genetic and environmental factors interact in a chaotic fashion. However, I do think that the influence of genes and hard-wiring on behavior has been grossly underestimated, especially in the broader culture.

A reasonable synthesis is to say that we each are born with tendencies with which we adapt to our environment. To what degree each is influential depends upon the trait one is looking at. For example, extroversion vs. introversion appears to be highly genetic (not learned). While the need for personal space seems to vary almost entirely by culture. But for any one trait, an extreme influence in one area can override the other. So a schizophrenic in any culture may have an exaggerated need for personal space, while even an extreme extrovert, if locked in a closet for years, will be socially impaired.

We can also look at nature vs. nurture in terms of broad-brush-strokes vs. details. For example, genetics may influence our desire for sweet, salty, and fatty foods, but our culture will give us a taste for a particular dish.

You then have to consider how different traits interact with each other (in addition to how they interact with the environment). For example a very aggressive extrovert may behave differently than a passive extrovert.

One of the challenges for neuroscientists is to break down the complex behavior of humans into discrete neurological phenomena, and then correlate these reductionist phenomena to specific measurable traits or behaviors and well as specific brain anatomical structures. A tremendous amount of progress is being made doing just that – reverse engineering the brain. This new study is just one piece of the puzzle.

Getting back to politics, this too is a multifaceted thing, but I have always been curious as to why there are two stable political parties in the US and further why so many people seem to accept the same package of political opinions. The socio-cultural explanation probably has to do with cultural labels and identity. People identify with the package of beliefs and the label they come with and so accept the whole deal.

But neuroscientists are finding different explanations. Liberals, for example, tend to value egalitarianism while conservatives tend to value meritocracy. The liberal-conservative spectrum is partly defined by this difference in moral outlook. The current study shows yet another trait that seems to vary along the liberal-conservative axis, with liberals favoring adaptability and conservatives favoring consistency. There may be other traits that likewise vary along the liberal-conservative axis. What would they be? In addition political affiliation may have more than one axis, for example is religiosity an independent axis of variation? I think so; you can have a religious liberal or even an atheist conservative.

In the US it seems that the two-party system is somewhat cultural and therefore artificial in that is boils down multiple axes of variation into a dichotomy. The Republican label brings together economic conservatives, who value meritocracy, with social conservatives, who value consistency and tradition. But these seem to be independent axes of variation.

If there were a consistent or universal advantage to one set of morals or abilities over the other, evolution would likely have favored them and it would predominate today. Therefore it is reasonable to suspect that there are advantages and disadvantages that balance out all along the spectrum. The same is likely true of most such traits – extroverts succeed in a social milieu while introverts excel at tasks that require internal focus free from distraction. The human species, and individuals, benefit from having both types around.

If we accept Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean, virtue lies in having a healthy balance somewhere in the middle. This could apply at the individual level, but we could also apply this at the societal level. In other words, out society benefits from having a balance of different types of people, even if each individual may not represent perfect balance.

My somewhat meandering thoughts on this topic reflect the complexity of human thought and behavior as I perceive it. But I do think there is an order underlying the chaos – we can dig down deep and find specific brain structures that enable us to perform specific tasks, like inhibiting a “go” stimulus. Some people get prickly at this reductionist approach to the mind, but I find it exhilarating and liberating.

It is also yet another example of how simple rules can interact to create very complex phenomena. Emergent complexity is a very important concept in understanding the natural world. I have noticed that creationists stubbornly refuse to understand this concept as it relates to evolution, for example.

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