Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberal and conservative brains

Claremont’s John J. Pitney calls our attention to a very, very widely reported study that, in the words of its authors, concludes:

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.

In other words, self-described "liberals" (among the 43 college students tested) are more responsive to changes in stimuli than are self-described conservatives.

This will surely, and has already, led to all sorts of liberal triumphalism about how liberals are "smarter," more open to ambiguity, and more willing to change as circumstances change than are conservatives. Of course, this presumes (as the authors would have us presume) that the change in stimulus is connected with a real-world event. It could also be a change in mere appearances or a change that isn’t itself central to the phenomenon on which we’re supposed to focus. And, even if the events are "real," Aristotle long ago noted that willingness to change may be a virtue in "science" without being a virtue in politics.

Another implication of this research is that "liberal" and "conservative" dispositions may, in a sense, be "hard-wired." We’re liberal or conservative--more precisely, more or less open to change--not because we’re persuaded by argument, but because of the way our brains work. I guess we can all stop arguing.

But seriously, this line of analysis would seem to make it easier to explain how one-time conservatives become liberal (they are exposed to evidence that their brain functions predisposed them to respond to) than how one-time liberals become conservative. It also would seem to have a hard time explaining how some "liberal" politicians stuck with old policy prescriptions that had apparently been discredited by the evidence. Or might it be the case that people with "liberal brains" are "conservatives" in the face of an entrenched "liberal" orthodoxy?

One last point: one of the principal authors has spent a lot of time studying the social psychology of conservatism, attracting the attention of The New Atlantis with this piece, and defending himself here. He also summarizes some of his work here. I wasn’t shocked to learn that he’d made a modest donation to HRC in 2005; he’s just wired that way.

Update: Our friend Jonah G. poses some incisive and entertaining questions about the research and relays a note from a neuroscientist who has actually looked at the research. If you thought the number of subjects was small (43), apparently the number of conservatives was ridiculously small (7). There are other potential problems with the research that I’ll leave you to read for yourselves. And I’ll pose one further question myself: is there a difference between thinking and reacting to perceptions?

Discussions - 18 Comments

It always scares me when scientists try to give biological explanations for ideological or theological differences. Next thing you know, they're going to be telling us our "hard wired" brains predispose us to be attracted to blondes, redheads, and/or brunettes. They'd probably go so far as to tell me how to neurologically know when I'm in love.

How stupid. When will people stop trying to give objective explanations for every single subjective life-experience?

When we stop living as a species.

I was thinking more along the lines of "when hell freezes over."

When I first read this article my train of thought was nothing like the way in which it is presented by Dr. Knippenburg. I read the Yahoo version, shrugged and took it for granted, as research showing what I am inclined to believe in the first place. Some people are predisposed by disposition to certain ideas. The author says this: "We would argue that all beliefs have a partial basis in one's needs, fears and desires, including beliefs that form one's political ideology." This seems to me to be self-evidently true, if perhaps incapable of falsification. One of my favorite fiction authors is Terry Goodkind who wrote the Sword of Truth series, in this series the main character has epithanies that he formulates as wizard rules...The first Wizard Rule is this: people believe something to be true either because they fear it is true, or they want it to be true. As a poker player who must make decisions on the basis of partial information/patterns/tells excetera I must always be on guard against believing a thing is true because I want it to be...(believing my hand is good when my opponent has me beat)but I must also be on guard against believing a thing true because I fear it to be...(believing I am beat when I have my oponent beat, because I am afraid he has me beat) I must try to reason perfectly combating and reconing properly on the nature of the dispositions of all players involved.

The question then is: are conservatives, conservative because they fear or desire to believe that conservatism is true, and are liberals liberals because they fear or desire to believe that liberalism is true?

My answer is, within certain limits absolutely yes...but only because I agree with the larger premise that our views to include my own are never fully free from hopes and fears. I am not capable of pure Cartesian meditation, and certainly not for long periods of time.

In my opinion this study isn't really research but rather the forgone conclusion of the premise that man believes something to be true either because he wants it to be or fears it is. People that want similar things to be true and fear that similar things are true could thus be grouped in catagories according to what they generally want to or fear is true. Finding a difference between liberals and conservatives is therefore only to say that different groups have different fears and hopes. Something that seems completly tautological to me. For the purpose of poker I categorize according to different player types "loose aggressive" (wants to believe he is winning when he is loosing and wants you to believe he is winning) "loose passive"(wants to believe he is ahead, and wants to make sure no one bluffs him, but too scared to take full advantage of being ahead) "tight aggressive"(concerned only with the truth,wants only to play perfect poker according to the fundamental theory of poker...folding monster hands if behind and raising with very marginal holdings if ahead or into obvious weakness) Tight passive (needs absolute certainty that he is ahead in order to call or raise always fears the possibility that he is behind, but wants opponents to think he is behind so they will bet his hand for him.)

So my first thought was that conservatives sound like "tight passives" and that liberals sound like "loose aggressives". A tight passive will almost always have the goods when called...but he will fold too much and be too timid...he will rarely get maximum value on a great hand. A Loose aggressive has a wild immagination that usually doesn't fool anyone...when he gets a great hand he will make more than any other player type....but great hands are rare...and he looses too much when his immagination runs into someone with the real deal. In general old people tend to be "tight passive" mainly playing for recreation and to keep the mind active, they play a pretty straight foward ABC type game. Raise when they have it fold when they don't style. In general Asian people tend to be "loose aggressive" they came to gamble and they are going to look you up and be a little over creative, somehow they think they can consistently pretend to have it. Are old people in general Conservative? Are Asians generally Liberal?

Who knows? What I do know is that the old people will loosen up somewhat and take a stand against the asian and when that happens the asian had better have it. Of course not all old people are tight passive and not all asians are loose aggressive...just a general observation...the suit and tie guy is tight aggressive or tight passive. The Hawain shirt guy is always aggressive mostly loose sometimes tight. Young people tend to be more aggressive, old people tend to be more passive, women tend to be tight passive preflop loose passive after the flop(they fear being bluffed by men?)(but women tend to be liberal? so how does this jive with tight passive characteristics?)...but it is a huge mistake to think that all women are, I know one gal who is one of the loosest most aggressive players out there, and lots of women are quite solid and emotionally ballanced, and even in general women tend to go on tilt less than men.

In any case I would remind everyone beware of the generalization, and beware of all assumptions. Not all trappers wear fur hats.

For the record I always attempt tight aggressive play but often times myself straying into tight passive or loose aggressive, and somewhat rarer if I am really frustrated and at a loss for where I am: loose passive modes. When I was playing more recreationally I would gamble more and be more loose aggressive, now that I am trying to make a living I am more likely to transition into tight passive. When it was more for fun I erred on the side of thinking I was best when I wasn't...while now I err more on the side of order to reduce my variance and bankroll fluctuations. moderately loose aggressive=win more, loose more. moderate tight passive=win less, loose less.

My problem with the way the character types are formulated is that I am not sure that the results corespond to anything causually related in a meaningfull way to conservativism or liberalism. For example conservativism in its libertarian branches praises the entrepreneur...but the entrepreneur is clearly a liberal/risk taker. While the government bureaucrat or wage earner may be conservative in mindset...desireing a guaranteed pension/wage...but may be championed by the "liberal" who dislikes the risk inherent in capitalism. Likewise one could take the category poker player and lump it with gambling and conclude that all poker players are risk takers by virtue of being gamblers...but this would not reflect accurately how they approach gambling, why they gamble or the attitudes they have towards risk or what they consider risk. Strangely enough I think this method of reasoning would have the entrepreneur and small business owner belonging to the "liberal" mind while having the highly structured analytical philosopher John Rawls belonging to the "conservative" mind.

So while I think dispositions may be hardwired...I think that the author is being "conservative"(by his definition ignoring ambiguities) in his attempts at meaningfull categorization, and it is problematic that a "conservative" in any meaningfull sense would donate to HRC.

In a sense I could put it this way: Matt Mingus says it best. The attempt to give objective explanations for subjective experience would have to belong to the "conservative" or more structured and persistent cognitive styles...Analytical philosophy vs. "liberal" Continental philosophy(excluding Hegel among others)

In the end I agree with Matt Mingus in that I don't think that any absolutely true categories or simplifications are possible, all experience is subjective. But I am hardwired towards conceptualizing the subjective.

All conceptualizations negate complexity and ambiguity wrongly and are thus false...but ambiguity and complexity only exist in light of established conceptualizations/knowledge. Nothing can be relevant until something is made relevant, but if something is made relevant, its relevance unfairly depreciates that which it does not take into account. But it is impossible to form concepts that take everything into account. Concepts are only justified on the grounds that what they leave out or downplay is not meaningful.

First, I hope that someday, psychologists and "normal people" alike will stop breathing heavily whenever someone discovers that the brain is involved in behavior.

Second, we should remember the possible role of brain plasticity. That is, our behavior can, is some cases, alter the size and sensitivity of certain centers in the brain, such that using our cognitive maps can increase the size of the part of the hippocampus where such activity occurs. So it might be with the anterior cingulate cortex.

Another consideration is the potential for a u-shaped behavioral response to increased sensitivity. In other words, one response to increased sensitivity is to take behavioral measures to reduce it. Think of a person with sensitive hearing putting the hands over the ears to shut out a noise that seems normal to another person. Now, who can hear better -- the sensitive one, or the "normal" one? Again, so it might be with novel stimuli.

The comments above should not be construed as a rejection of the existing research by Jost et al.. It is good research, and my own research is consistent with it. Nor am I ready to trade my brain for a more conservative one. I don't know what I would do with all that extra room! :)


Glad you joined the discussion, though I'm hard-wired not to be open to new arguments.


Thanks. Luckily, I am programmed for tolerance.

So to sum it up: Liberals are more responsive to changes in stimuli than are Conseratives.

I'll buy that. If they had said: "Liberals are more responsive to facts than are Conseratives", that I'd have a problem with! The Liberal World View has nothing to do with facts.

Matt Mingus wrote: "They'd probably go so far as to tell me how to neurologically know when I'm in love."

If I'm not mistaken, I think TIME or Newsweek did a feature on that very thing not long ago. It was all very impressive, with lots of color pictures of brain activity and such.

As I recall, I was put off by that study because what it was calling "love" was the initial sensation of euphoria. To them, that was the story: "Love is a biochemical response." That was no doubt satisfying since a broader agenda they have is to frame all of human existence in purely secular and materialist terms.

"Love," of course, is much more than the initial euphoric rush; it is more than the purely physical sexual response. CAT scans on the brains of people married 50 years might not reveal anywhere near the activity of a teenager's brain undergoing the experience of puppy love, but I'd wager the "love" experienced by the elder couple is more "complete" -- a term that defies simple neurological measurement, as does "love" itself.

Jonah Goldberg does a fine job addressing the study. I'm left to believe the study came to the very conclusion the researches desired -- that is, being liberals themselves, they wished for validation and glory. I'm quite certain conservative neurologists, seeking the same end, could come up with a study to conclude what they wished for as well.


For an account that is consistent with both views of love, read up (or trust me) about the Opponent Process theory of emotion, associated with Solomon and Corbett, out of the Univ. of Pennsylvania where I worked for a time.

Anyway, the OP works like this: When we first engage in a highly emotional event (like love, anger, or jumping from a plane)we experience an automatic process consistent with that event (euphoria, anger, fear) and after a lag, we also experience an opposing process (depression, affection, elation) that brings our physiological response back towards homeostasis.

Therefore, our manifest response is a weighted mean of two opposing processes, which keeps our emotions from going through the roof (or the floor).

After repeated exposure to the same event (as in the same spouse, the same airplane, etc..) the opponent process kicks in earlier, more strongly, and for a longer duration. The end result is that our manifest emotional responses are pale vestiges of their original selves. Interestingly, this is not because the automatic process has dulled: it stays the same, but the opponent process gets more efficient. So, we can still have a physiological reaction to our loved ones, even though it is manifested, sometimes, by a brief dip in the altitude of the newspaper as the wife passes by.

Kinppenberg, that is a very logical, organized response to the study.

I'm just an MD, not an electroencephalographer, but the study at issue is of putrid quality: psychologists doing focal EEGs (aka brain waves) on a small group of folks and drawing great conclusions that undoubtedly reflect their own bias. It reeks, and needs flushing.

The "hard sciences" have so far best resisted the postmodern BS that now afflicts so much of the Academy, and psychology, one of the "soft sciences", is as vulnerable to this metastasizing BS as cultural anthropology or sociology.


Taken by itself, I grant that this one study is not as earth-shattering as reporters suggest. And I have already responded to the rather mundane suggestion that our brains are connected to our behaviors. but, this study is not an isolated one, and, as most studies do, it adds another puzzle piece to an emerging picture.

On the other hand, I am reading your words, and thinking about the drugs that comprise a substantial portion of the average patient's treatment these days, and the relatively shoddy research that is conducted on many of them before they are used on those of us who trust the "hard" sciences like yours, only to find that their depressed children are getting MORE depressed, their blood thinners can't be taken with their blood pressure medication, their bored children are automatically prescribed Ritalin by MDs who don't even see their patients, their cholesterol meds have more side effects than an LSD weekend, and their stents have an effective interval of a year before heart surgery is necessary. I can't tell you how much money and misery my family has endured playing "trial and error" with treatments while our physicians and specialists shoo us out the door so that they can cram more co-pays into the day. So, please spare me the "soft science" stuff.

Fung I can see why you didn't bother commenting on my rant in 11. It was poorly written off-topic and somewhat strange. Basically Jonah said what I wanted to say with greater clarity. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you when it comes to OP. But how is OP different from the Micro-economic concept of diminishing marginal returns? In other words you get the most enjoyment out of the first cold beer...or the first slice of pizza...and if you ate only at the finest restaurants you would eventually tire of them. The researchers in the study wanted to know among other things why we think the poor can be happy or the rich can be miserable...Doesn't OP or diminishing marginal returns adequately explain this presumption? The rich man has heightened expectations that he can never fulfill since he is living at capacity. The poor man on the other hand can't get much lower and has a much greater appreciation for the good things since they are eventfull instead of routine to him. Ceterus Paribus(assuming both are equally sports fans)A person with Season tickets to college and professional games in three different sports doesn't enjoy watching Ohio State play Northwestern Idaho tech in the way that a person who watches a live sporting event every three years does. Is it possible to use willpower to combat the opponent process? Should it be combated in the first place since you seem to think it is crucial to maintaining sanity?

Also how does OP relate to Mike Caro's threshold of misery?(the point at which we are emotionally insulated from the feeling of loss...if I lose $3000 it doesn't feel much different from loosing $6000 within that moment of time.) Only upon rational consideration with intervening time do I come to realize that money not lost is money won...the logic of always being even...all my decisions depend for rightness upon having positive expectations.

Does the OP cause one to give up on making good decisions?

I notice that after I win a considerable amount of money I always throw it away in a game that is bigger than what I know I should be playing given my bankroll/mental status...because I crave the feeling of winning a huge pot...of posting a huge winning session. I know I can walk in and play "conservatively" and win $200 per day...but that doesn't feel like money...until I reason with myself by attempting to put it into the context of doing real work. I desire the glory of playing a $400,000 a year tourney schedule...but what level of risk is reasonable?

Does OP cause people to take greater risks than they would otherwise take, because they seek greater highs in life? Why do happily married men cheat on women? You can't see a good thing when you stare at it too long?

You suggest that the OP is natures way of preventing us from being Manic Depressives...but how do you keep your life in context and perspective to prevent flareups caused by excessive risk taking caused by feeling too indifferent to everything you have taken for granted? It seems to me that there has to be room for some level of Conscious control over OP. We should be able to adjust ourselves so that winning a $100 feels the same no matter how much you have won or lost previously...if you can reach this emotional state then you are playing poker within the maxim of Mike Caro...with the knowledge that you are always even, so that all your choices can be predicated upon "positive expectations" and not upon some sort of gamblers fallacy such as "getting even"..I would not have called but I was looser...I was on Tilt...exct.

Now I realize that for the poker player OP would seem to make loss easier to handle, and reduce the euphoria of in a sense one could say that with experience OP would allow poker players to be more level headed...but I am not sure that this is the case, as illustrated by the fact that some happily married men cheat, and people do crazy things to attempt to gain new highs...or lows? My view of human nature has man chasing the manifest emotional responses of an earlier time or point in his life. The first great book I stayed up all night reading...the first kiss...the first great first football game...even my feelings of pain and discomfort, hurt, repulsion, fear and injustice before I explained them away. But my point is why should my experience of some distant first be priveleged? In what sense is it rational to privelege first experiences, OP be damned? If the good is a good why isn't it just as good the 50th time? Who is to say that I couldn't have the willpower to at least contextualize(thus determining my emotional response) all my experiences evenly? At least in theory it seems that this is a part of what is required to play poker prefectly...or to play with the knowledge that I am always even...that all my decisions must depend upon the merits of positive expectations as far as I can determine them reasoning calmly. In other words poker players if they wish to remain winning poker players need to be able to make the routine wins eventful to them phsycologically. Once the routine is not eventfull one does too many silly immaginary things one deviates from reality and before long we start to put people on hands we wish they had instead of the ones we know they have...although one might win more sometimes the losses can be stagering. In other words my main reason for transitioning to Loose Agressive play is not that I think it is optimal, but rather that I become bored and indifferent to the routine of optimal. Then after suffering loss due to playing Loose Agressive...I turtle up and play too Tight this mode I am afraid of what my opponents might have and I fold too often or fail to raise as often as I should. It takes a while for me to come back to Tight Aggressive equilibrium, and I am not sure that maintaining this equilibrium is natural according to OP.

Another general question for Fung: As a poker player I am interested in controlling this OP centered in the limbic brain? If it is then to what degree can the Neocortex influence the limbic brain...I should like to think that as a poker player I could completly override my limbic brain...but I would never fool myself into thinking that what I wanted to accomplish was possible simply because I wanted it that way. I know that I can't completly control the limbic brain. I know that no one else can either...

If I was to make a cheap attack on liberals I would say that they differ from conservatives in that they are more likely to attach a primacy to "feeling" and therefore the lymbic brain...while conservatives attach more weight to the neocortex and therefore to "reasoning". Of course my general impression isn't that this is always the case. Assuming it was true liberals could point out that the lymbic brain is not capable of is an honest communicator...wheareas the Neocortex is capable of constructing bold faced lies and bluffs. In any case I don't have a problem admiting that all behavior is controlled by the brain, the question for me as a poker player is: which brain? Is that a lymbic reaction, or the schemes of the neocortex?

In other words ...

This is all bunch of hooey, whether supported by other 'research' or not.

John Lewis,

I am right up against the wall until Wednesday PM. I promise to try to respond to this.

John Lewis,

I really don't know where to start. I could count the questions, but that would be one more task, and I am near the end of my rope as it is.....

First, the opponent process is generally an explanation for reflex-like responses that are likely to be associated with Pavlovian conditioning. So, when a stimulus is "turned on" or presented, the a process kicks in, followed by the b process, and there is not much going on at the level of voluntary, or operant behavior.

You could say that most of this is happening around the limbic system, and NOT primarily around the prefrontal cortex.

Now, gambling is something that I am not terribly familiar with. ditto for theories about it, with one exception. Gambling is NOT a respondent behavior, but rather an operant, voluntary one, and it is therefore controlled more by its consequences than by its antecedents.

What keeps gamblers gambling is the variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement for betting. A similar kind of schedule maintains telemarketers, stalkers, kids who whine for toys at Walmart, and spouses who nag. You can never be sure when the payoff will be, but the number of payoffs per/game is variable, difficult to predict, and just dense enough to support high rates of behavior.

Also, when the relationship b/w behavior and payoff is not obvious, we tend to make up stories that explain the "random" outcomes: We repeatedly push the elevator button, we creep out into the intersection so the traffic light can "see" us, and we make up stories about our ability to "read" our poker opponents, or to feel the energy in the cards....

These are not reflexes, or even respondent behaviors, but are rather "higher order" behaviors that help us to bridge the gap between our desires, expectations and our outcomes. I would never venture to suggest that libs and cons differ in their tendency to engage in such thinking. I WOULD play around with the idea that different classes of events disappoint, and beg for explanation. Perhaps the best thing our neocortex can do is to choose our environments wisely, before we put our autonomic nervous system at the mercy of the stimuli therein.

I don't think I did a very good job of responding to your central themes. I am willing to keep trying....

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