Conservatives and liberals have different brains

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brains of liberals and conservativesScience supports the prevailing stereotypes:

Using data from MRI scans, researchers… found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.

That paragraph is pretty explicit, and you can see why the media loves it.


1.  The subjects who self described as 1-5 “very liberal” to “very conservative”, were students from University College London.   Consider: no subject picked “very conservative.”  Also consider:  Tony Blair would describe himself as a liberal.

2.  The study also found high predictive value in the reverse: so looking only at an MRI, the researcher could tell liberal from conservative with 72% accuracy.  So let’s accept that the findings correlating anatomy to political persuasion, or some factor it represents, are real.

3.  But all you know is what the brain looks like now.  You simply don’t know if the brain anatomy caused the subjects to think in a certain way; or thinking in a certain way changed the brain structure.

4. To the extent that we believe anatomy implies a fixed trait, or at least a long lasting one, then this study more readily supports the notion that people who easily identify themselves as X or Y are closed minded tools who can’t be swayed by logic or information.  Call CNN.

Also: conservatives have been demonstrated to be cowards.

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7 Responses to Conservatives and liberals have different brains

  1. Comus says:

    The main thing on that study obviously was that it was co-authored by the Colin Firth. Natalie Portman having published previously on frontal lobe development on children, neuroscience appears to be highly correlated with Oscars.

    I am yet to find an analysis that states a larger area means differences in behavior, the studies are contradictory. Also I found it a bit weird it was only the right amygdala, whilst the left went unmentioned. Statistics also show that in northern parts increased ice cream consumption increases deaths by drowning (p<.05). Weird, stuff the numbers. Confounding variables,maybe?

    I love the scoops, I always thought people who think differently still have identical brains.

  2. JohnJ says:

    Every once in a while, someone publishes a study that “proves” that people who think like s/he does are smarter than everybody else. The only thing that seems to indicate to me is that people really like feeling superior and like they’ve been somehow specially chosen.

    Which describes most people, actually.

    • nixiekitten says:

      To be fair… it is usually the media that will make a sweeping generalization from the study. All the study shows is a correlation for this particular set of students, but it is interesting…

      Then again… why did they need two guys from BBC Radio 4? I wonder what they did to get co-authorship…

      • JohnJ says:

        To be even more fair, scientists, or at least people who issue these kind of studies, do so in the most attention-getting way they can, including using the most attention-getting language, because more media attention translates into more research dollars and more prestige.

        • cat says:

          more media attention translates into more research dollars and more prestige

          Exactly. And in the UK, research grants are hard to come by.

          The results are actually interesting. But study doesn’t say the brain structures are permanent. These are very young adults, away from home for the first time and probably experimenting with political views. It’s trendy to be involved in politics, especially left-wing politics. It’s not surprising that nobody described themselves as “very conservative”.

          It would be more interesting to compare results with a large sample of older adults to see if they were replicated.

  3. rarelyreality says:

    Quickly passing through, thought I’d comment…

    Brains cause stuff, but what caused/changed brain structure, etc, etc? Old story. They note: “… the neural processes implicated are likely to reflect complex processes of the formation of political attitudes rather than a direct representation of political opinions per se”. No shit.

    Okay, so bravely ignoring fact that correlation is not transitive… a big ACC correlates (I imagine) with good performance on tasks involving interference, like n-back lure trials. Such stuff correlates with intelligence, operationalised by g. That correlates positively with openness to experience. Might the liberal question be tapping into openness?

    How about this table (ignore the nums: references) from here, summarising personality correlates of political bias:


    Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent1 (C-)
    Eccentric, sensitive, individualistic1,3 (O+)
    Open, tolerant, flexible2,3,9,20 (O+)
    Life-loving, free, unpredictable7,8 (O+, C-, E+)
    Creative, imaginative, curious9,10,11,20 (O+)
    Expressive, enthusiastic9,22 (O+, E+)
    Excited, sensation-seeking9,10,11,20 (O+, E+)
    Desire for novelty, diversity9,20 (O+)
    Uncontrolled, impulsive9,12,13,22 (C-, E+)
    Complex, nuanced16,17,18,20,21 (O+)
    Open-minded20,21 (O+)
    Open to experience10,11,20,23,24,25 (O+)


    Definite, persistent, tenacious1,2,5 (C+)
    Tough, masculine, firm1,2,3,18 (C+, A-)
    Reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal1,4,5 (C+, A+)
    Stable, consistent1,2 (C+, N-)
    Rigid, intolerant2,3,5,7,8,15,18,20,22 (O-, A-)
    Conventional, ordinary2,3,5,18 (O-, C+)
    Obedient, conformist2,3,18 (O-, C+, A+)
    Fearful, threatened2,15,18,20,22 (N+)
    Xenophobic, prejudiced2,3,15,18,19 (O-, A-)
    Orderly, organized4,5,7,8,12,13,14,20 (C+)
    Parsimonious, thrifty, stingy4,5 (C+)
    Clean, sterile4,5,7,8 (C+)
    Obstinate, stubborn4,5 (O-, C+, A-)
    Aggressive, angry, vengeful2,3,4,15 (A-)
    Careful, practical, methodical5 (O-, C+)
    Withdrawn, reserved5,9 (E-)
    Stern, cold, mechanical5,7,8,9 (O-, E-, A-)
    Anxious, suspicious, obsessive5,6,15 (N+)
    Self-controlled7,8,9,12,13,14 (C+)
    Restrained, inhibited7,8,9,22 (O-, C+, E-)
    Concerned with rules, norms7,8,9 (C+)
    Moralistic9,15,18,28 (O-, C+)
    Simple, decisive19,20,21 (O-, C+)
    Closed-minded20,21 (O-)
    Conscientious25,26,27 (C+)

    The O stuff pops out in the required direction.

    Not sure about the right amydala. Maybe neuroticism?

    Does this explanation help at all? Maybe not. Might be interesting to compare the 5-point question with how the punters voted in the last elections. I’d guess there’d be a low correlation. I wonder why I want there to be a low correlation.

    Hey hey, look at this, there’s a gene!


  4. pulchrifex says:

    (a) Error bars do not belong on scatterplots. The individual data points would give a much better sense for the strength of the relationship.

    (b) Related: A correlation coefficient in the mid-0.2 range means that this relationship explains about 5% of variation. This is the kind of thing that can be picked up by sophisticated machine learning algorithms, which are what they used to predict political orientation from gray matter volume, but it’s not quite right to say that “looking only at an MRI, the researcher could tell liberal from conservative with 72% accuracy.” No, that requires training a support vector machine on 27 other MRIs — well, maybe 13 if they’re just using just the people in categories 1 and 4. (And remember that a monkey could get 50%.)

    (c) To gloss the anterior cingulate as “a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity” is barbarous in more than grammar. Wikipedia does better: The ACC “appears to play a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.” So instead of being better at “understanding complexity,” maybe liberals are more hedonistic… or tend to have high blood pressure.

    As usual, I don’t want to go so far as to say these sorts of criticisms somehow invalidate the results. I know people doing multivariate fMRI classification research, and most of them would kill puppies for 72% two-class classification accuracy. But it is a WEAK RELATIONSHIP. Extremely powerful machine learning routines get it wrong 1 in 4 times. This is what kills me about psychology results in the news — not so much that the reporters get it wrong (though they often do), as that they either don’t understand or refuse to communicate the difference between a subtle regularity and a yawning rift. (And, yeah, I’m aware that scientists are often complicit in this.)