Conservative or liberal: Are we hard-wired that way?


The popular press likes to oversimplify scientific research, and a person’s political leanings obviously involve a multitude of complex factors. Having acknowledged that, in a study conducted at University College in London, the brains of liberals and conservatives were found to have consistent differences. (Brian Montopoli, “Are Political Views Hard-Wired into our Brains?” CBS News. December 29, 2010)

Liberal and Conservative Brains

In our current politically heated climate, conservatives and liberals may be surprised that their opposites have brains at all, but the researchers found that both liberals and conservatives did have brains and that both of their brains functioned normally. The difference they found was in the relative size of two parts of their brains. The two divergent parts were the anterior cingulate, which is associated with recognizing conflicts, making judgments, and optimism, and the amygdala, which is associated with fear.

Conservative and Liberals: Fearful versus Foolish?

In conservatives, the anterior cingulate was smaller than in liberals, while the amygdala was larger. These two parts of the brain function in complex feedback mechanisms, wherein new situations are checked by the anterior cingulate, which asks the amydala if it detects a threat, and then makes a judgment. The implications of the study are that conservatives are more likely to detect threats in any given situation and advise caution, while liberals are less likely to detect a threat and proceed optimistically.

Conservatives and Liberals Not Necessarily Born That Way

Scientists caution that the relative size of different parts of the brain may not indicate that a person was “born that way,” but may mean that the brain part has grown through use. According to BBC News, London cab drivers have a larger hippocampus than most people. (“Taxi Driver’s Brains Grow on the Job,” BBC News, March 14, 2000) The hippocampus is associated with memory and it is unlikely that London cab drivers just happened to be born with larger hippocampuses, but rather that they developed through having to memorize the location of all the streets, restaurants and businesses in the city.

Political Argument are Counter-Productive

Whether born or grown, differences in brain form and function predispose people to think along certain lines, and a person’s way of thinking is resistant to change. We have all noticed that it’s very hard to change someone’s mind, including our own, and presumably even harder to change their brain. In fact researchers have found that arguing with those of opposing worldviews only hardens them in their position. This confirmation bias is present in all human beings, results in frustration, and can reduce adults to name-calling usually reserved for elementary school playgrounds. (Mark R. Lepper, Charles G. Lord, Lee Ross, Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization, American Psychological Association, 1979.)

Liberals and Conservatives Not So Different

According to research on political polarization in America, Americans may not be as polarized as the media suggests. ( Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, “Political Polarization in the American Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2008) Most Americans share the values of freedom, equality, fairness, and respect for tradition. It’s just that some put a priority on equality over tradition or vice versa, and this does not mean that they are evil or lack values, but rather that they simply emphasize some values over others.

We know that some people are more introverted and some are more extraverted, that some are more analytical and some are more emotional. We don’t generally consider people who have different temperaments to be evil, just different. If we could reach the same conclusion about people who differ from ourselves politically, we could perhaps lower the volume on the political rhetoric and ultimately get more accomplished.