Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain literally think differently.
Wow, You have to be kidding me.
Even in humdrum nonpolitical decisions, liberals and conservatives literally think differently, researchers show.
CHICAGO — The differences between liberals and conservatives may run deeper than how they feel about welfare reform or the progress of the Iraq war: Researchers reported Sunday that their brains may actually work differently.
In a study likely to raise the hackles of some conservatives, psychologist David Amodio and others found that a specific region of the brain's cortex is more sensitive in people who consider themselves liberals than in self-declared conservatives.
The brain region in question helps people shift gears when their usual response would be inappropriate, supporting the notion that liberals are more flexible in their thinking.
"Say you drive home from work the same way every day, but one day there's a detour and you need to override your autopilot," said Amodio, a professor at New York University. "Most people function just fine. But there's a little variability in how sensitive people are to the cue that they need to change their current course."
That "cue" is processed in a part of the brain know as the anterior cingulate cortex, and Amodio was able to monitor its electrical activity by hooking his subjects up to electroencephalographs (EEGs) while they performed laboratory tests.
The work grew out of decades of previous research suggesting that political orientation is linked to certain personality traits or styles of thinking. A review of that research published in 2003 found that conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed-minded, less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to new experiences.
Some of the traits associated with right-wingers in that review were decidedly unflattering, including fear, aggression, tolerance of inequality and lack of complexity in their thinking. That — along with the fact that it lumped Ronald Reagan and other political conservatives in with Adolf Hitler — evoked outrage from conservative pundits. The editors of The New Atlantis magazine called the study "a powerful example of the misuse of science and the arrogance of expertise." Other critics noted angrily that taxpayers footed the bill for the research through $1.2 million in federal grants.
John Jost, an author of both the review and the current study, was prompted to defend the research in an Op-Ed piece published in the Washington Post.
"It's wrong to conclude that our results provide only bad news for conservatives," he wrote on Aug. 28, 2003. "True, we find some support for the traditional 'rigidity-of-the-right' hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity."
In the current study, Amodio and his colleagues recruited 43 college students for a simple experiment. The subjects reported their political attitudes confidentially on a scale from -5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (extremely conservative). Then they completed a computer test called "Go/No-Go" while an EEG measured their brain activity.
Subjects were told to press a button ("Go") each time the computer flashed the letter M but not when a W was displayed. Each stimulus-response set had to be completed within half a second.
Amodio said the "Go" stimulus came up 400 out of 500 times, so "they're sitting there getting in the habit of pressing this button. But 20 percent of the time, the 'No Go' stimulus comes up — it's unexpected — and they're supposed to do nothing. We can see how accurate people are at withholding the habitual response."
Subjects who rated themselves more liberal had higher scores for accuracy, Amodio said. But, more importantly, they also showed stronger electrical activity when the "No Go" cues were presented, indicating that more neurons were firing.
Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it's possible Amodio's liberals appeared more flexible than his conservatives because the population was skewed.
"We're not a very liberal country," she said. "We're more likely to find extreme conservatives in the U.S. than extreme liberals."
Skitka said there's ample evidence ideologues on the far left can also be uptight.
"Extreme conservatives could be really rigid," she said. "Moderates should be pretty flexible. But if we go all the way to the left, they may look a lot like the extreme right — rigid in their ideas."
Another researcher in the field, Philip Tetlock of the University of California-Berkeley, found just that in a 1984 study of British parliamentarians.
Analyzing confidential interviews with 89 members of the House of Commons, Tetlock found that moderate socialists were most likely to interpret policy issues in complex or multidimensional terms, followed closely by moderate conservatives. Extremists on both the right and the left tended to rely on a few broad principles, reject inconsistent evidence and have little tolerance for alternative views.
In an interview last week, Tetlock said he would be cautious about drawing conclusions from neurological studies like Amodio's. Using that kind of evidence, he said, "it's hard to distinguish between someone who's rigid and someone who's principled."
For example, he said, "Take (President) Bush and Iraq: Is that rigid, or is it principled? The psychological data won't resolve that. It's a political value judgment that hinges on the extent to which we share his priorities."
Nevertheless, Tetlock called Amodio's research "important."
"It's important to learn how political belief systems operate — whether there are different underlying processes at work," he said. "It may have implications for the relative likelihood that liberals and conservatives would make different kinds of errors in decision-making situations."
And what does that mean?
"For a conservative, the worst mistake is to abandon a good policy prematurely," he explained. "Liberals think the worst mistake is to stick with a bad policy too long."
Mark Pollock, associate professor of communication at Loyola University, said the Amodio study "provides scientific evidence for conclusions people (studying political rhetoric) have reached previously."
"A higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity is typical of people who are liberal," he said. "That's not a surprise. It does, however, suggest there may be a hereditary and neurological basis for that. It also might suggest there's less likelihood of people shifting their political ideology if it's hard-wired in there."
Pollock saw another benefit to Amodio's findings: If political attitudes are tied to neurophysiology, he said, "it would make bashing conservatives — or liberals — pointless. It's not as if people are making a choice to see the world this way or that way. It's how they're built."
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