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?