Liberal or Conservative — Different Brains or Different Opinions?


People often want to know something about their psychiatrist.

There is this thing called “transference” where their past relationship history can certainly color what they think and feel. I have no big secrets to hide from my patients, so I can usually be direct and take only an insignificant amount of time on these issues. Usually it just takes one of my stabs at humor.

For those to whom religion is an important facet of life, I am often asked about my beliefs. I often end up saying things like, “I am very sorry I am Jewish and not the Christian you would have preferred, but do you think Christ could work through a crazy old Jewish lady like me who would work really hard to help you feel better?” A “yes” and a laugh and we get straight into the meat of things with that one.

Only once, in recent memory, has anyone come in to my office and asked, before we started a session, if I were a liberal or a conservative. I basically consider myself apolitical and don’t ally myself politically (let alone publicly) with anyone.  When I tried to explain that, the man became frustrated with me, and ended up telling me to “just ask me whatever you’re going to ask me,” so I did.

I have actually had people who identify themselves as liberal identify me as conservative, because I chose to serve in the armed forces. I have had people who identify themselves as conservative identify me as liberal, because I have spent many years hanging around school, at least partly on the east coast.  Also, because I believe human knowledge, medical knowledge in particular, to be built on some sort of weak and shifting sand, as research moves us forward.

It has always bothered me when people polarize on any issue, the way that politics are polarized into conservative and liberal.  To me human beings are far too complex to be “labeled” in such a way, so “simplified.”

There may be something simply and basically human at work here, though. Curiously enough, whenever I hear a “debate” between conservative and liberal, the first thing I think of is my rather basic debating training in prep school. Someone proposed we debate the existence of God.  Our faculty advisor told us that was not a possible debate topic, because in order to have a proper debate, it is necessary to rely on logic, so each side has to admit that there is a chance the other side could be right.  Both theists and atheists have positions determined by belief, therefore unchangeable, so debate is not really possible.

That is surely what a conservative vs. liberal debate generally sounds like.

Come to think of it, that is probably the reason I have not seen one in many years.

I did see some picketers today, with signs supporting one republican presidential candidate as well as signs supporting one democratic presidential candidate.

They were on different street corners, several blocks apart, and could not have communicated with each other, even if they tried to scream over the roar of the traffic.

I also thought of this place:

It has been a few years since my husband and I visited the Medieval Times dinner theater in Buena Park, California. They call it a “dinner and tournament”, and a disembodied voice on a loudspeaker told folks eating (with their hands, pre-silverware medieval style), according to which of the four walls of the room they are sitting near, what colored knights are their friends and what colored knights are their allies and should be cheered, as well as which are their enemies and should be booed. The amount of fervor and yelling, and the ease with which it was evoked, amazed me then. Allegiances and identification with others and the fervor of such feelings, when people are allied in groups, and their group identities enforced — well, just think of what sports fans are like. The phenomenon certainly feels real enough, and let’s just say for now that there seem to be enough psychological studies to confirm its existence.

As for political groupings, I was brought up to be proud that (mainstream) America was special and wonderful because it survived with a two-party system — a system of alternatives, where an alternative choice is always available.

As I look at this through the eyes of a mature person, I have sometimes wondered how different our “alternatives” are.

There may actually be difference in brain function between the two groups.

This article reviews an elegant study of people who were self-professed to be either liberal or conservative.  The response tested was tapping a key of some sort when a letter flashed on a screen changed.  Self-professed liberals seem to do this a bit more easily than self-professed conservatives.  From this it is inferred that the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a brain region that detects conflicts between a habitual response and a different (designated as more appropriate) response.

Conservatives doing less “change?”  I can’t believe anyone is truly surprised by the finding, although linking it to a specific portion of the brain is rather unique.

At any rate, here is an abstract of the original study.

There seems to be an avalanche of literature by those lovable psychologists about, well, the psychology of politics.  Apparently people have been fascinated by this for a very long time.

I need to say somewhere here that what I told the patient who asked if I were conservative or liberal remains as close to the truth as I can get. But the question remains for me, why people become one or the other.

In terms of academic research, a fair amount of the front-line psychological testing of these issues seems to have been done by John Jost of NYU — some nice recent work by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska. A nice summary of the literature in an interview by (would you believe?) Mother Jones online, a periodical I haven’t checked out since the 60’s.

I am now convinced of the difference between conservative and liberal thinking — and consequently, between conservative and liberal brains.  It seems that for years conservative commentators have denied its very existence.  It has been denied by, for example, George Will, a powerful conservative columnist I remember reading in the Boston Globe when I was in grade school. In his case, conservative criticism is indeed virtually impossible to turn up on the net anymore.  Science seems to reign here now — there is lots of evidence showing conservatives and liberals have subtle differences in how their brains function.

The amount of psychological tests over many years is overwhelming.  Conservative brains seem to favor repetitive patterns over changing ones.  They seem to linger (in terms, for example, on visual images of threatening or disturbing things, more than the more tranquil.

The recurrent question in this kind of research is “Are we dealing with ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’?”  That is, are we dealing with traits that are “hard-wired” into a human being, or things that people ‘grow’ as they progress through life, from what happens to them?

It seems we are looking at some mixture of both. Before I am deluged by memories of neighbors who said, when I was a child, “my parents always voted a straight ticket and so do I,” there have been the ubiquitous adoption studies.  People who have grown up with adoptive families might match the politics of those families, or they might not.

This is really different from the human characteristics I am more likely to study, like alcoholism or obesity, which have been shown in such studies to have fairly clear genetic determinants. For belief systems, estimates dance around 50/50 — about half hardwired and half environmental. Let’s just say for now that nobody has found, and nobody is likely to find a hunk of DNA on the human genome that we will be able to read as “liberal” or “conservative.” One way of teasing out the truth could be to look at children and see if it is possible to predict who is going to become conservative or liberal. We must keep in mind that according to the classical (Freudian) belief system, the “temperament,” which becomes the “character” of a human being is pretty much in place by age 10.

(NOTE: The following link will either open a PDF document or take your web browser to another site — don’t be surprised, and be sure to come back here!)

I found no overpowering statistical results, but significant ones.  R. Chris Fraley and colleagues show — with structured scales that assess political attitudes at age 18, a relationship between “authoritative” vs “progressive” parenting and such attitudes.

My first reaction is: this is not something that is physiologically measurable, and certainly not (like puberty generally is) irreversible.

The next question is, do people change their political attitudes, and how?

Yes, they do.

Discover Magazine (aptly subtitled “science for the curious”) has located what look like some seriously academic (although isolated and generally not ‘replicated’ or endorsed by other researchers) studies that point to everything from blood alcohol level to time constraints and using hand sanitizers making patients register as more conservative.

Perhaps the largest and most public shift of people to more conservative attitudes came after 9/11.

This seems more the stuff that Gallup polls are made of than psychological research. Nevertheless, lots of research associates conservatism with fear or threat. 9/11 surely provoked feelings of that sort.

Steering clear of political biases, here is a British structural MRI study suggesting that those (students) who identify as conservative seem to have bigger amygdala.

(WARNING: Another PDF document attached to this link)

Here is a review of amygdala and their importance in fear conditioning, something that has been long studied.

I cannot say what fears are warranted, and which are not. I can say that the level of butting heads between liberals and conservatives does not seem to be moving us forward.

All righty.  We have people who seem to have differently functioning brains who are so passionate about what they stand for that it is impossible to have them stand on the same street corner, let alone debate in a logical way.

How on earth is anyone going to run America effectively? Reconciliation has got to be possible. I have seen suggestions that conservatives and liberals may be able to get together on some issues by changing how they think and how they communicate.

The issue that comes up most often in this concept is ecology.

Despite all of the attributions of concern for the ecology to “crazy tree huggers,” Restoring our wilderness was a conservative issue for a long time — many think it still is.

Changing each others’ brains is unlikely, changing language to approach common concerns should and probably could work.

Here is the strongest glimmer of hope I have been able to find.

Okay, it comes from an academician, so I may be betraying my prejudices.  George Lakoff, the author of the above, is known for saying that the metaphors, the analogies people use to express their thoughts, are telling.

As for the patient who surprised me by asking me if I were conservative or liberal; well, I asked him, after a fairly productive session, why it had been important for him to know if I were liberal or conservative.

He answered, “I needed to know if you speak my language.”

My hope here comes largely from knowing I am not the only person in the world who can speak more than one language.



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