Liberals Are From the ACC, Conservatives Are From the Amygdala?

By Chris Mooney | June 13, 2011 9:07 am

In the comments here, we’ve been discussing this April “neuropolitics” study in Current Biology, which was supported by the actor Colin Firth and actually lists him as a co-author. Another celeb science fan, one supposes.

Anyway, it finds that in a sample of 90 young British men and women, the liberals and the conservatives tended to have somewhat different brain structures in brain scans. Conservatives had more gray matter in the amygdala, and liberals had more in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The authors weren’t shy about speculating as to what this means:

We speculate that the association of gray matter volume of the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex with political attitudes that we observed may reflect emotional and cognitive traits of individuals that influence their inclination to certain political orientations. For example, our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty. The amygdala has many functions, including fear processing. Individuals with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear, which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger
amygdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system…. Similarly, it is striking that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust, and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust. On the other hand, our finding of an association between anterior cingulate cortex volume and political attitudes may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty. One of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views. Such speculations provide a basis for theorizing about the psychological constructs (and their neural substrates) underlying political attitudes. However, it should be noted that every brain region, including those identified here, invariably participates in multiple psychological processes. It is therefore not possible to unambiguously infer from involvement of a particular brain area that a particular psychological process must be involved.

For reporting on other caveats, see here. One major issue that immediately arises is causation: Does being liberal make the ACC bigger, or does having a bigger ACC make you liberal, or is something else going on? For more detail, see the Wikipedia page on this line of research, which is actually pretty helpful.

This is published, peer reviewed science; it is consistent with other, peer reviewed science; but still, this whole area strikes me as highly uncertain and subject to misinterpretation. However, it is noteworthy that on this blog in February, when I asked readers for opinions about the documented liberalism of scientists, many of you basically gave the same answer as the one implied above. As I summarized your views then: “liberalism is associated with more shades-of-gray thinking and an appreciation of complexity, and this goes naturally with the pursuit of science.” Nobody cited this paper, though it had already been in the news in a pre-press form.

My question is this: Is this really the way it is all going? Will we soon not only psychoanalyze, but also brain-scan our politics, and our politics of science?

Comments (33)

  1. If we take these preliminary conclusions as a given, I would love to see research done into people who have had traumatic experiences that resulted in their “changing sides” and what that does to brain chemistry. Did certain chemicals released during the trauma (a robbery at gunpoint; a fear or flight situation; a child’s birth on the way to the hospital for the parent) change how a person thought about a situation? Examine 1000 or more people randomly to determine their world view, and then follow them through a few years, having them report any excessively emotional times in their lives.

  2. ╦heBigo╦

    No amount of scientific research can ever determine what your political views are by scanning your brain and finding patterns between liberals and conservatives. The problem with researches like these is that often they are a kind of cross-breed hybrid of say neuroscience with sociology or psychology. Or genetics cross-breed with sociology or psychology ect. Both of these social sciences which are hardly ever reliable on almost nothing.

    Then you have the political spectrum to deal with Christopher Cole Mooney. See the political spectrum is not some straight line that most people view as but instead a Diamond known as the Nolan chart. http://www.lpty.org/nolan2.gif. Now replace the socialist part of that chart for “Statist” which is just another synonym for progressive and it would be the same as socialist. Your amygdala can be any size regardless of where your views on this chart are.

    Then there is the sample used in your links Mooney. The study uses british citizens to brain scan them and find differences in the brain size regarding political views. There are too many flaws with this kind of study. For one it’s a small sample of individuals. Another is the fact that conservatism or “tory” and liberalism have different meanings if you go to say the U.K or U.S or China. To us Americans your average british conservative would still be regarded as a liberal or socialist or a “Liberal Democrat”.

    I also recommend that you read these two great articles from mises.org. http://mises.org/daily/4632 http://mises.org/mmmp/mmmp1.asp . I would also replace the word “science” on the first article title and substitute it for the word “Art”. The Art of individuality. Which finally brings me to your last sentences. There is no science of politics. Science deals with the natural physical world and how it works. For things like politics and kissing, there is instead an art to it.

  3. Chris Mooney

    so now we’re just dismissing social science? (even though this isn’t social science, though you could argue that social science furnished the hypothesis that neuroscience then tested.)

    I agree that there is a political spectrum (whether or not you conceive of it as a diamond or something else) and there is cultural variation in political views. But just pointing these things out does not refute these findings. all it suggests is that you should do this study in the U.S. and other political contexts. but we already *have* a US study that is clearly related

    http://lcap.psych.ucla.edu/pdfs/amodio_natureneuroscience07.pdf

  4. Did you see the error bars on that study?

    The ability to predict how conservative/liberal a person is based on their ACC volume is terrible. Absolutely horrible. Even within the error bars, you obviously have people who are very liberal that have an ACC that is as small as your average conservative.

    That certainly doesn’t sound “causal” to me… it sounds like phrenological reverse inference.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Issues_in_fMRI#Reverse_Inference

    As for your final question, yes, this is the way it’s all going. Even your guest author on the “Sexy Science” post invoked that “neurology” would somehow be helpful (though I have no earthly idea how except perhaps through correlative methods like this paper) in figuring out why people only use scientific facts when it suits their interests.

  5. A scientist

    As a biophysicist, in would say that social, political, and biblical theory cannot be considered true “sciences” unless you can deduce the observations made from physical law. Sure, the process by which you make your subjective conclusions of objective observation may stem from scientific reasoning, but the essence of science is not subjective. You should really replace the term “science” in “social science”, “political science”, and “biblical science”, with “pseudoscience” unless you can derive a way for which opinion has no bearing on your conclusions. Science is pitilessly indifferent to human opinion and nature’s laws will always hold true no matter what you think of them.

  6. JimF

    Monsters, John. Monsters from the amygdala!

  7. Terry Emberson

    @5. A scientist Says:

    You should really replace the term “science” in “social science”, “political science”, and “biblical science”, with “pseudoscience” unless you can derive a way for which opinion has no bearing on your conclusions.

    So, what you are saying is that if something is hard to define empirically, it isn’t worth studying with scientific methods…

  8. Nullius in Verba

    #4,

    “it sounds like phrenological reverse inference”

    Very apt!

    Yes, Chris knows all that. Take a look at the discussion in the previous thread.

    But Chris doesn’t look at error bars, he has a … different way of assessing the scientific literature.

  9. 1985

    3. Chris Mooney Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 10:24 am
    so now we’re just dismissing social science? (even though this isn’t social science, though you could argue that social science furnished the hypothesis that neuroscience then tested.)
    I agree that there is a political spectrum (whether or not you conceive of it as a diamond or something else) and there is cultural variation in political views. But just pointing these things out does not refute these findings. all it suggests is that you should do this study in the U.S. and other political contexts. but we already *have* a US study that is clearly related
    http://lcap.psych.ucla.edu/pdfs/amodio_natureneuroscience07.pdf

    I don’t think anyone is dismissing social science or the results. The conclusions from and implications of the results are what is highly debatable.

    I know it is easy to forget but “conservative/right” and “liberal/left” are concepts unique to Western European society and its offshoots, they developed fairly recently in history, and even among those societies, the meaning of the terms differs significantly (what is considered liberal/left in the US actually looks quite right-wing to many people in Europe). There are billions of people all over the world who haven’t even heard of these terms let alone fall into such categories. Were differences in brain structure and function determining that everyone in the Soviet Union and Eastern Block was a communist? Did the brain structure suddenly change after 1989 when a lot of people, many of them card-carrying members of the party embraced capitalism and took fairly conservative right-wing positions? What was determining people’s political orientation in the Middle Ages when there was no ideology to argue over? What is/was determining the political views of tribes in the mountains of Papua? Of the hunter-gatherers we all came from?

    For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that there are real differences in the brains of the groups (I haven’t looked carefully at the data and it’s not exactly my field of expertise so I am going to trust peer-review as far as the results are concerned). Given all of the above, the only conclusion you can tentatively make is that political views and the social environment that resulted in their development also result in consistent, reproducible differences in the brains of people holding such views. Not the other way around.

  10. Chris Mooney

    @9 all i can say is that there is a big literature on this–are you aware of it? start here perhaps

    http://www.psych.nyu.edu/jost/Jost%20et%20al%20(2007)%20are%20needs%20to%20manage%20uncertainty%20and%20threat.pdf

  11. errors

    Yeah, republicans and democrats are consistent with each other within the errors. That’s an extremely low significance green jelly bean.

  12. I agree this is iffy. But, somebody like “bigot” who thinks Mises Institute stuff is scientific has no standing lecturing anybody else on what’s scientific. What a nutbar.

  13. A scientist

    @7

    You used quite the strawman there. I’m not saying that at all. I simply said that using some of the scientific method in one’s approach to studying subjects does not make the study of that subject scientific. In no way did I speak of the importance or worth of studying those subjects. I think those subjects are very important to our society, but that doesn’t mean we can say that they are “science.”

  14. Chris Mooney

    Again, I do not understand this approach of homing in on a few details in a single study, critiquing, and acting like you’ve spiked the study. This is not a good way to think about science in new and emerging areas.

    New research tests existing hypotheses (that’s what they’re doing here), and raises new questions. You don’t publish it because you’ve found “truth.” You publish it because it’s one drip in a bucket that hopefully will someday represent truth. So everything should be understood in context.

    Clearly, they have a correlation here. Then they state all their many caveats. This is what you’re supposed to do

    “…our findings reflect a cross-sectional study of political attitudes and brain structure in a demographically relatively homogenous population of young adults. Therefore, the causal nature of such a relationship cannot be determined. Specifically, it requires a longitudinal study to determine whether the changes in brain structure that we observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure. Our findings open the way for such research. Moreover, the voting public span a much wider range of ages and demography than those studied here, and indeed political representatives themselves tend to be drawn from older adult groups. It therefore remains an open question whether our findings will generalize to these other groups or whether such demographic factors may modulate the relationship that we observed. Nevertheless, our finding that gray matter volume in anterior cingulate cortex and right amygdala can explain between-participant variability in political attitudes for young adults represents a potentially important step in providing candidate mechanisms for explaining the complex relationship between genotype, environmental factors, and political phenotype. We speculate that other aspects of political behavior may similarly have an unexpected motif in human brain structure.”

  15. 1985

    10. Chris Mooney Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 3:13 pm
    @9 all i can say is that there is a big literature on this–are you aware of it? start here perhaps
    http://www.psych.nyu.edu/jost/Jost%20et%20al%20(2007)%20are%20needs%20to%20manage%20uncertainty%20and%20threat.pdf

    There is a very big literature on evolutionary psychology too and while the discipline itself is legitimate, a lot of that literature is simply pseudoscience. And it is pseudoscience because it is too quick to ascribe causality where that’s totally not justified, or, in the worst cases, where other facts make its existence impossible. This is quite similar I am afraid.

    Again, I am not disputing the results, I am disputing the direction of causality that’s inferred from them, because it makes absolutely no sense in the light of everything else we know about the subject. You didn’t address that and the link you gave me doesn’t either.

    If you are going to claim that the right-left political divide is determined by neurophysiological differences between individuals of the kind discussed in these articles, then you would expect that divide to develop repeatedly in independently developed complex societies. However, the facts are that this hasn’t happened, therefore you can not assume simple causality of that kind. You can claim that in the presence of preexisting such an ideological divide, people who for whatever reason develop a particular kind of brains are more likely to pick a certain side (but this obviously makes the penetrance very incomplete), you can claim some sort of positive feedback between the two, etc. But the fully deterministic model is simply invalid.

  16. Chris Mooney

    @15 wait a minute…you seem awfully confident that across human societies, there has not always been some basic left right divide. how are you sure of this? i am very far from sure of it. i think the divide may well be there, and may be part of human nature, but of course it would take a great diversity of actual political forms due to culture.

  17. ╦heBigo╦

    @SocraticGadfly,

    Hehe this nutbar does physics and especially Robotics ;). So yes i can make an assessment on what is science. As long as you understand the jargon your good. Mises always has great articles and is on spot on the difference between science and social science. What were dealing with here inevitably falls between social science and science, as we have several people in the study whom came to bad conclusions on brain sizes based on political orientation. Which is troublesome because the social sciences cannot be regarded as true science. When you acknowledge that it is then as a result you end up with say magazines like Scientific America loaded with psychology, sociology and politics instead of the supposed aim of the outlet essentially booting out real stuff.

  18. 1985

    14. Chris Mooney Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    …………….

    I am not assuming that you are assuming the direction of causality, you clearly state all the caveats, the authors do to. I just feel that pointing this out more explicitly is helpful

    And it is helpful because I think way too much focus is given on the conservative/right vs. liberal/left opposition and where science fits in it, as if this is the natural way of things. It isn’t. We have this divide not because that’s the only way it could have been but because of a very long chain of often highly contingent historical events. Ideologically, the “right” is just as unscientific as the “left” because any ideology is inherently unscientific; that in practice the left tends to slide more with science than the right is actually quite irrelevant – there are a laundry list of issues in which the left would disagree with science if science was to directly contradict them. You have been talking about this yourself.

    That’s why the only way to make progress towards solving the problems of the world is not to try to somehow navigate the political landscape so that some baby steps towards that are made but to ditch the whole political system with all the associated and perpetuated by it incompetence, ignorance, and scientific and mathematical illiteracy and to have decision making firmly grounded in the scientific method. But this is never going to happen unless we start talking about it, and we are never going to start talking about it until we stop talking about republicans vs. democrats, conservatives vs. liberals, left vs. right, whatever. It is never going to happen period, of course, because we will never make those changes, but it is worth pointing it out.

  19. Chris Mooney

    I want to thank everyone for a good discussion here, btw.

  20. 1985

    16. Chris Mooney Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
    @15 wait a minute…you seem awfully confident that across human societies, there has not always been some basic left right divide. how are you sure of this? i am very far from sure of it. i think the divide may well be there, and may be part of human nature, but of course it would take a great diversity of actual political forms due to culture.

    I am pretty sure for the simple reason that you can’t even define left and right and conservative and liberal in the context of different cultures and societies. Let’s assume that the model is correct and uncertainty-avoidant characters are more likely to be conservative. In a communist totalitarian society you would expect to see all those people as the most loyal, active and faithful members of the party. But that would be ultra-left, wouldn’t it? Similarly, in a Sharia-law society, they would be strict adherents to the system; but we don’t define Sharia-law societies as right-wing, do we?

    There has probably always been one division that I agree with, and it is between the “conservative”, in the sense of trying to keep the social status quo and existing cultural norms, and the “progressive”, who are more open to changes in the system. This would probably sort of fit the model. But this actually has very little to do with the current republican vs democrat divide in the US. And in various times the relative proportions of the two groups have shifted dramatically, often in the same society, which indicates serious environmental influence.

  21. Chris Mooney

    “There has probably always been one division that I agree with, and it is between the “conservative”, in the sense of trying to keep the social status quo and existing cultural norms, and the “progressive”, who are more open to changes in the system. This would probably sort of fit the model. But this actually has very little to do with the current republican vs democrat divide in the US.”

    My jaw just dropped. I think this has everything to do with the divide in the US.

    And this is indeed the argument that it all reduces to. The core of the right left dichotomy appears to be stability vs change.

  22. 1985

    21. Chris Mooney Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 4:10 pm
    My jaw just dropped. I think this has everything to do with the divide in the US.
    And this is indeed the argument that it all reduces to. The core of the right left dichotomy appears to be stability vs change.

    It doesn’t have much to do with the divide in the US because Christianity, free-market capitalism and all the other things that republicans are defined by need not be part of it. In other cultures it would be different things. That’s what I have been saying for the last few posts.

  23. Chris Mooney

    @22 today’s republican party has its roots in a reaction against first the new deal and then the 1960s counterculture, growth of the regulatory state, etc. this is certainly resistance to change.

  24. Brett

    Yeah and “progressive” establishments like Planned Parenthood have their roots in the eugenics movement. So what’s your point? That liberals are open to new, exciting and occasionally devastating ways of reorganizing society in ways that fit the agenda of the moment? Shortsightedness is just as big a failing as stagnation.

  25. Nullius in Verba

    “And this is indeed the argument that it all reduces to. The core of the right left dichotomy appears to be stability vs change.”

    In stable Communist societies, such as Maoist China, would you count political dissidents as being on the left or the right?

  26. 1985

    And the South, hardly a stronghold of progressivism was a bastion for the democrats until not so long ago.

    The point I was making above is that one has to distinguish between general conservativism in the literal sense of the word and its particularities in the historical and sociocultural context of the US. It would be defend the case for neurophysiological foundations of the latter.

  27. Chris Mooney

    “In stable Communist societies, such as Maoist China, would you count political dissidents as being on the left or the right?”

    That’s the central question, isn’t it. People who have studied it much more than me have tried to answer it.

    http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~hannahk/Political_Conservatism_files/Jostetal2003-reply.pdf

    Read the whole article but here is a typical quote:

    “Once communism succeeded in becoming a well-established status quo, however, a tolerance for novelty and change (more likely among “liberals”) could only be manifested in two ways: (a) by moving toward a more extreme form of communism, which might have been practical if communism had been succeeding but had not yet reached all of its goals or (b) by moving to a different system that might work better, thereby ridding society of a failed revolution. Under this second political scenario, liberals might opt to support change toward what is considered in the West to be a conservative, inegalitarian position (free-market capitalism) and to sympathetically consider the possibility that such a position is preferable to the failed status quo (e.g., McFarland et al., 1992, 1996). What one has, then, in the case of Soviet communism by the 1980s, is the occurrence of a misalignment between political ideology and psychological motivation brought about by the aging of the movement and by the movement’s failure to deliver the political and economic goods as originally promised. None of this vitiates the basic truth that core conservative (and liberal) ideological contents vary in their appeal to individuals as a function of their psychological makeup.”

  28. Chris Mooney

    @26 no argument there! It would be *ridiculous* to defend the neurophysiological foundations of anything that is primarily cultural. But that doesn’t mean there are no neurophysiological foundations of ideology.

  29. @26 & @28

    Given the well characterized neurophysiological changes due to learning, I actually don’t think it would be absurd to find neurophysiological *correlates* of cultural phenomena, whether structural (as in this study) or functional (as in the fMRI studies out there). But “foundations” implies causality, so yes, I would agree that finding *foundations* of cultural phenomena would be impossible (or at least highly unethical… it would entail scanning the brains of newborns then randomly reassigning them to different cultural groups blinded to their families).

    But assuming that ideology is somehow independent of culture is an tougher argument to make, I think. The conservative-liberal dichotomy seems to be simply a means of reducing the dimensionality of political issues onto a convenient axis on which one can vote for one of two parties. Given similar types of issues being of importance at the geopolitical level, perhaps this axis is oriented similarly enough in the 50,000-dimensional space of political orientation (much higher than the 2D libertarian “diamond” no doubt) that it reduces down to something highly correlated across the G20.

    Ultimately, though, I think that your title, Chris, highlights that studies like this face the same problems that “neural foundations of gender” types studies do… a lot of assumptions (“they act so different, surely it’s because their brains are different!”) but ultimately shaky data.

  30. @Nullius

    AND those error bars are even Standard Error on the Mean!

  31. Jody

    Here’s my rant on the arguments presented by several people on this, and many other, subjects (I’m looking at you, anthropogenic global warming).

    On the one side you have studies or models, which for the purposes of this rant I will call ‘my science’. On the other hand you have these posters’ critiques of the science. But they don’t actually have science of their own, just criticism of my science.

    I’m going to present an analogy on how I believe science should be weighed and debated in society. The two opposing sides are matter and anti-matter. You take the body of ‘my science’, and this constitutes my side’s matter. Criticism of my science is like radioactive decay – it basically reduces the mass of my side’s matter, but it generally doesn’t destroy it. On the other side is the anti-matter, which consists of the body of science that runs contrary to ‘my’ position. It is also subject to potential radioactive decay from criticism. Now take those two sides and smash them together. Which side still has mass still left? Winner.

    That “winner” is not necessarily conclusive or immutable. Nothing says that the “winner” is actually Capital R-Right. But when I have to choose a side, this is one of the main techniques I use to do it. So let’s look at some real world examples:

    The universe is expanding, pretty straight forward in my mind. The body of evidence on my side has the mass of, well, the Metrodome. Criticism of the individual scientific works causes some radioactive decay of the mass (Nullius I think you should examine how many data points Hubble originally used before decrying the lack of participants in the lib/con brain study…) . So we’re left with, well, the Metrodome, but maybe one small section is closed for renovation and the seats are removed. Then you have the other, anti-matter side. I’m no expert, but I’m going to estimate it’s about the mass of a hotdog. Criticisms again cause radioactive decay, so to be generous let’s say the hotdog has no relish or mustard. Now, smash the anti-matter hotdog against the Metrodome. Shazaam! You’re pretty much left with the Metrodome, maybe with a hole in the ceiling, but I still believe the universe is expanding.

    Now take’ vaccines cause autism’. When the first study came out, it was kind-of by itself (for the sake of argument let’s say that was true, anyway). It had some mass, say the mass of a pencil. Criticisms did their thing, and there was a heck of a lot of radioactive decay which whittled down the mass to, oh, let’s go with just the eraser. But for a while, there was no anti-matter to slam it against, so it was the science of record. Doesn’t mean it was true, or right, or even that I believed it – I mean, it’s just an eraser. But it was ‘science’, and just whining about it wasn’t going to make it go away, that eraser was still on the table staring at you. So then a bunch of doctors did some ACTUAL SCIENCE and created their own, anti-matter mass. That thing got pretty big pretty fast, so it’s like the size of an anti-matter school building. Radioactive decay takes out the teacher’s lounge worth of mass. Slam them together. Shablamo, the anti-matter school is pretty intact, winner winner chicken dinner. And a school-sized hunk of anti-matter mass is something for me to look at and take pretty seriously.

    Now let’s take this ACC/Amygdala study. That’s on the one side, that’s the matter. It’s, I dunno, let’s say a Cesium atom. The criticisms here and wherever else do their radioactive decay thing, and we’re left with a Carbon atom. Now let’s slam that against…oh wait. Nothing there. Carbon atom is still hanging around, because there is no anti-matter science to blow it away. Again, I’m not saying that I think we should scan people’s brains and then have the MRI machine automatically vote on their behalf, but it’s something to consider. Merits notice and further study.

    And that’s my take on this. This is the real world. Or to really boil it down: ‘My science’ beats your’ no-science’ everyday of the week and twice on Tuesdays (again, I’m really looking at you, AGW).

  32. Chuck Klaer

    I learned about the Amygdala shortly after 9/11 while trying to understand mass hysteria, in an article in Discover about the research of Joseph LeDoux. The use of fMRI scanning was soon thereafter to become ubiquitous. Every year AAPOR (the American Association for Public Opinion Research) has a contest to determine what the logo on its “T” shirt will be. I suggested to a friend of mine who is a past president, that it should be “With fMRI scanning, we’ll know what your opinion is before you do”
    This research further confirms my conclusion.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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