Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives

By Chris Mooney | September 7, 2011 10:10 am

This is an invited guest post by Andrea Kuszewski, a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum based in Florida, and a researcher and manager with VORTEX: Integrative Science Improving Societies, based in Bogotá, Colombia. She blogs at The Rogue Neuron and tweets as @AndreaKuszewski.

Can neuroscience provide evidence for a liberal and conservative thinking style?

It may seem like a stretch to say that one could predict whether you lean left or right by looking at a brain scan—no questions asked, no opinions voiced—purely based on your neuroanatomy. However, this might not be too far from reality—at least insofar as predicting thinking style, which has been shown to be somewhat distinct based on party association.

Does brain structure determine your beliefs, or do your beliefs change your brain structure? What about those who switch parties at some point? How do they fit in to this model? We’ll be discussing all of this. It’s a complicated issue with lots of variables in play, so we’re going to take a pretty deep look into this topic from all angles, so we can draw the most accurate conclusions.

Please keep in mind from the beginning that this is not an endorsement of any one political party. This is science—we’ll just be discussing the data. Ready?

Let’s begin…

Recent converging studies are showing that liberals tend to have a larger and/or more active anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC—useful in detecting and judging conflict and error—and conservatives are more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, where the development and storage of emotional memories takes place.  More than one study has shown these same results, which is why I felt it was worth investigating.

A few questions to keep in mind: If these differences do legitimately exist, how can—or better yet—how should we use this knowledge? How can insight gained from research of this kind prove helpful in the quest for more effective communication across party lines? Can empathy and understanding of personality differences, without judgments or stereotyping, aid in the productivity of political debates around topics such as climate change or evolution?

A few clarifications

The idea of a genetic or a neurological difference between liberals and conservatives is a hot topic of debate. In fact, Chris has covered quite a bit of it on this blog. Consequently, there has been a lot of thorough criticism of these converging studies—the methods, types of subjects, error bars, the flaws in design, sample size, etc, etc, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. But more research keeps cropping up that shows this same trend, so I feel at this point we should be thinking a little more about what this all means in the big picture.

Maybe each study has some flaws—I can probably find a few things in every study that could be improved upon. I also know the danger of over-applying and over-generalization of results like these to an entire population, or assuming that a group tendency necessarily applies to every single person in that group. Correlations are also not the same as causation. So I get it. I don’t want MRI scans to become the phrenology of politics any more than you do.

But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here.

Like Chris had mentioned, some of these correlations between brain function/anatomy and specific political party are consistent across multiple studies, of varying design and methodology, over years of research. That tells me something. The exact analysis or interpretation of the individual studies might not be 100% correct as stated in those papers, but there is obviously a pattern, and that’s what I’m most interested in. In cases like these I tend to look more at the data and pay less attention to the analyses, drawing my own conclusions from the data across all the studies. One paper may not have all the answers, but I think there is enough mounting evidence in the stack of literature that we can start (carefully) drawing some conclusions.

The study-specific nitpicking has already been done—quite marvelously, I might add—so I won’t be doing that here. What I will do is look at the pattern across several of these papers and talk about what this implies in the larger scheme of things.


Two neuro studies mentioned here on this blog recently, the Amodio study (Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism, 2007) and the Kanai/Colin Firth study (Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, 2011), found similar results when comparing the neuroanatomy of liberals and conservatives. These are the ones I want to focus on.

The Amodio study found that liberalism correlated with greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, or the ACC, while the Kanai study found that liberalism correlated with increased gray matter volume or a larger ACC, as shown in MRI scans. Additionally, the Kanai study found that conservatism was correlated with increased volume of the right amygdala.

(P.S. Don’t be scared by the neuro-speak—I’ll explain it all, I promise)

From Kanai:

Recent work has shown a correlation between liberalism and conflict-related activity measured by event-related potentials originating in the anterior cingulate cortex. Here we show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure. In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI.

We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring and recognition of emotional faces by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure.

Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.

Now, a first reaction might be: liberals have a larger ACC, and conservatives have a larger amygdala, therefore, we can tell someone’s political party by their brain structure! Brain scans at the polling booths!

Eh, not so fast. It’s more complicated than that. First, let’s define those brain areas.

What does the ACC do and why is it relevant?

The ACC has a variety of functions in the brain, including error detection, conflict monitoring1, and evaluating or weighing different competing choices. It’s also very important for both emotion regulation and cognitive control (often referred to as ‘executive functioning’)—controlling the level of emotional arousal or response to an emotional event (keeping it in check), as to allow your cognitive processes to work most effectively.

When there is a flow of ambiguous information, the ACC helps to discern whether the bits of info are relevant or not, and assigns them value. People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them. Someone can notice lots of bizarre patterns—that alone isn’t pathological—but you need to know which ones are meaningful. The ACC helps to decide which patterns are worth investigating and which ones are just noise. If your brain assigned relevance to every detectable pattern, it would be pretty problematic. We sometimes refer to this as having paranoid delusions. You need that weeding out process to think rationally.

Mental illness aside, being able to sort out relevant patterns from irrelevant patterns logically is difficult to do when heavy emotions are involved. Imagine being under extreme emotional duress (such as having a fight with your significant other) then sitting down to analyze a set of data, or read a story and pick out the main points. It’s ridiculously hard to think logically when you’re all ramped up emotionally. This is why emotion regulation goes hand-in-hand with cognitive control and error detection.

Too much emotion gets in the way of logical thinking, and disrupts cognitive processing. This is why in times of crisis, we learn to set aside our emotions in order to problem-solve our way out of a dangerous situation. Those with the ability to maintain low emotional arousal and have high cognitive control are generally better at handling conflict in the moment, plus tend to be the least permanently affected by trauma in the long term2. They tend to be more adaptable to changing situations (or have a higher tolerance for complexity), and have what we call cognitive flexibility.

So that’s the ACC. Now let’s look at the amygdala.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, the area of the brain associated with emotions. The amygdala is important for formation of emotional memories and learning, such as fear conditioning, as well as memory consolidation. Emotions significantly impact how we process events; when we encounter something and have a strong emotional reaction—either positive or negative—that memory is strengthened.

Persons with a larger or more active amygdala tend to have stronger emotional reactions to objects and events, and process information initially through that pathway. They would be more likely swayed towards a belief if it touched them on an emotional level.

Those with a larger amygdala are also thought to experience and express more empathy, perhaps explaining why one of the features of psychopathy is a smaller amygdala. This is not to say that someone with a smaller amygdala is a psychopath, just that they are probably less emotionally reactive or receptive.

On the other hand, while emotional sensitivity can be a good thing, too much emotionality can have negative consequences. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder, characterized by poor and uncontrollable emotion regulation, features a hyperactive amygdala.

How do these brain functions fit in with political affiliation?

The obvious question we should be asking first is: What does it mean to be liberal or conservative? As a nation, we have been through wars, major financial crises, human rights revolutions, and during each of these significant historical events, the core values or prominent issues backed by the liberal and conservative party seem to change somewhat. Because of this, it wouldn’t be accurate to say a liberal 50 years ago looks the same as a liberal today. So can we really say there is a liberal or conservative “thinking style” if the issues paramount to each party are always evolving? Actually, I think we can. Really, it isn’t so much the specific issue that defines the thinking style, it’s the preference for either stability or change. Depending on the current events, this can mean very different things.

There was a recent article in the Guardian titled, “What does it mean to be a liberal?” in which liberalism is described as adaptability to a changing environment. If you look at liberalism as adaptability, and conservativism as stability, the party reactions to various events such as gay marriage (liberals want acceptance and change to new ways of thinking, conservatives want stability of previously held values), war (liberals are willing to adapt to shifting world views, while conservatives see war as a means of “preserving the stability of the homeland”), or even the current financial crisis—all make perfect sense.

Now, think back to the neuro data.

Remember, the Kanai study found a correlation between increased volume of the right amygdala and the tendency to identify with the conservative party. A recent unrelated study [PDF] of emotion regulation strategies and brain responses showed that there is specific lateralization of brain activation depending on the type of regulation strategy employed. Translation: Using reappraisal strategies—sometimes thought of as “intellectualizing” or cognitive reevaluation—activated the left side of the amygdala, while emotional suppression of visible behaviors and feelings activated the right side.

Remember, conservatives were found to have a larger right amygdala, the side activated when attempting to hide or suppress and emotional reaction, rather than using logic and reason to reassess a situation, which would activate the left side.

Let’s assume, for sake of discussion, that all of the data in these studies hold. What would that imply?

Past studies, as well as the ones mentioned here, have shown that liberals are more likely to respond to “informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty”. Considering the role of the ACC in conflict monitoring, error detection, and pattern recognition/ evaluation, this would make perfect sense. Liberals, according to this model, would be likely to engage in more flexible thinking, working through alternate possibilities before committing to a choice. Even after committing, if alternate contradicting data comes along, they would be more likely to consider it. Sound familiar? This is how science works, and why there might be so many correlations between scientific beliefs (and lesser belief in religion) and tendency to be liberal. Is this a hard and fast rule? Of course not. But you can see the group differences overall.

Now let’s look at the other side. Conservatives, more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, would tend to process information initially using emotion. According to Kanai,

Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala.

So, when faced with an ambiguous situation, conservatives would tend to process the information initially with a strong emotional response. This would make them less likely to lean towards change, and more likely to prefer stability. Stability means more predictability, which means more expected outcomes, and less of a trigger for anxiety.

Liberals, though, tend toward unpredictability. They don’t mind change, and in fact, they prefer it. They seek it out. This personality type would likely choose “change” over “stability” just because they tend to be more novelty-seeking by nature. The fact that they have a more prominent ACC helps them to deal with radically changing situations, still find the salient points, all without the emotion getting in the way. These individuals are the compartmentalizers, the logic-driven ones, while the conservatives are the ones driven by emotion and empathy.

What does this boil down to in practical terms?

In order for a person to embrace a cause or idea, it needs to be meaningful for them. Each type of person has a different way that they assign meaning and relevance to ideas. Let’s take liberals and conservatives, since we are theorizing that they are two distinct thinking styles: liberals would be more flexible and reliant on data, proof, and analytic reasoning, and conservatives are more inflexible (prefer stability), emotion-driven, and connect themselves intimately with their ideas, making those beliefs a crucial part of their identity (we see this in more high-empathy-expressing individuals). This fits in with the whole “family values” platform of the conservative party, and also why we see more religious folks that identify as conservatives, and more skeptics, agnostics, and atheists that are liberal. Religious people are more unshakable in their belief of a higher power, and non-religious people are more open to alternate explanations, i.e., don’t rely on faith alone.

So—for liberals to make a case for an idea or cause, they come armed with data, research studies, and experts. They are convinced of an idea if all the data checks out–basically they assign meaning and value to ideas that fit within the scientific method, because that’s their primary thinking style. Emotion doesn’t play as big of a role in validation. Not to say that liberals are unfeeling, but just more likely to set emotion aside when judging an idea initially, and factor it in later. Checks out scientifically = valuable. Liberals can get just as emotionally attached to an idea, but it’s usually not the primary trigger for acceptance of an idea.

Conservatives would be less likely to assign value primarily using the scientific method. Remember, their thinking style leads primarily with emotion. In order for them to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy. Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.

A Reminder: This is not meant as a criticism or an endorsement for one style over the other, but merely pointing out that there are definite differences between groups in primary thinking or processing style. Also, this data was assumed to be correct for the sake of this hypothetical discussion. With that said, there are some very important things to take into account before drawing any final conclusions. If you skip this last part, you’re missing half the point of this entire analysis, so keep reading. Also, I’ll be really sad if you give up now, and no one wants that.

This is wicked important!!

We can’t have this conversation without considering the following things about neuroscience and psychology as they relate to politics:

1. The brain is plastic. Meaning, every time we engage in any activity, our brain changes somewhat, even if only to a very small degree. In fact, your brain is a little bit different right now than when you started reading this article. And a little different now. Engaging in any activity excessively or intensely over a long period of time changes your brain even more—such as training for a sport or spending a long time practicing and becoming proficient at a skill. Conversely, if you stop using an area of your brain to a significant degree, it will probably shrink in size due to lack of connectivity, similar to the atrophy of muscles.

When it comes to the brain areas measured in these studies, we aren’t sure how much of the difference was there to begin with, or to what degree the brain changed as a function of being in a particular political party. I suspect both things contribute somewhat. How much? We have no way of knowing at this point. To say conclusively, we need a longitudinal study, with control groups, measuring brain volume before and after joining, leaving, or participating in a political party’s activities or ideologies.

2. Not everyone fits into little personality boxes. The world just loves the idea of personality defined by linear spectrums of traits that are the opposite of one another. I’m guilty of this myself at times. We assume everyone occupies one data point on that spectrum, neatly dividing people into categories based on how close they are to one or the other end: thinking vs feeling, introvert vs extrovert, and so on. This may be true for some people, but not everyone.

You are probably familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, where they define you as ‘types’ based on your standing on four separate dichotomies, giving you a profile of INFP, ESTJ, and so on. One of these dichotomies is the thinking/feeling, or logical/emotional scale. People naturally assume that since these are opposite types of processing styles, that one would lean toward one or the other, thus defining themselves as either a ‘rational’ or an ‘intuitive’ thinker. Well, some people can actually be extreme on both ends, as explained by Scott Barry Kaufman in his recent article on the ‘Renaissance’ thinking style.  Personally, depending on what kind of mood I’m in or when I take the test, I could get a different result every day.

Just because someone rates high on emotionality, that doesn’t mean they automatically rate low on rationality, and vise versa. Some people are clearly more on one end of the spectrum than the other, but some people are weighted relatively equally on both ends of the spectrum—not in the middle of the two, but extreme on both ends—they are able to go back and forth between thinking styles depending on the situation. This is very important to keep in mind when you talk about labeling and sorting people into categories based on one measure of a trait.

3. Political affiliation is a choice. One of my pet peeves is hearing people talk about “the conservative gene” or the “liberal gene”. That’s like saying there’s a “rollercoaster affinity gene” or a “Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Gene” (ßif that exists, I have it) (yes, I’m kidding).

True, certain personality traits, which are heritable, tend to influence dominant thinking, feeling, or processing styles; those personality traits influence behaviors and preferences. A personality type that is defined as “thrill-seeking” is probably more likely to enjoy rollercoasters than a personality type that is anxious in large crowds. But a thrill-seeker doesn’t necessarily love rollercoasters, for any number of reasons.

A person chooses to join a political party; they are not forced into one straight from the womb. The tendency for a personality type to be likely to engage in a set of somewhat related behaviors is not a genetic cause for a behavior. There is a lot of variability, even with genetic predisposition. Also, there is very rarely one gene that accounts for anything, especially when we are talking about conditions of complex traits like personality style or psychological disorders.

4. People tend to join networks of peers that are like themselves, regardless of specific political issues. The majority of the population is not terribly well-informed about the current political issues. Yes, a portion of the population is extremely involved and loyal to their party’s mission—but most people are pretty apathetic, and will just go along with what their peers are doing. Sad, but true. When that happens, the party as a whole tends to take on the personality of the dominant leaders at that point in history, and attract people who respond to that type of personality or communication style.

So on some level, I see political parties being a bit like personality clubs, with only a portion that really knows what’s going on in politics or utilizing their decision-making power. If you’re reading this article right now, you are likely in that informed and decision-making portion, but not everyone that identifies with your party is. Studies like the ones mentioned don’t give quizzes to see if the participants are politically savvy or even if they know who the president is; they just ask which party they identify with. That’s a pretty significant point right there.

Conclusions and Discussion

When we speak of “liberal and conservative thinking styles” the most important thing to keep in mind: we are talking about group differences, not individual differences. The people that fit into this two-category model described here are generally the most active and hard core members of the parties. This doesn’t account for moderates, nor does it take into account extreme fanatics of both wings, where we start to see mental instability confounding the group traits. Both sides have a little extremity and their fair share of imbalanced individuals in the fringes, so don’t assume any one party is immune.

Additionally, this “liberal/conservative thinking style” division doesn’t account for those types of individuals mentioned up there in point number 2. Some people are just really complex. Maybe they are highly emotionally sensitive and have a large amygdala, but also have a prominent ACC and prefer novelty and ambiguity. Those people exist, and I know some of them personally. The really complex people never fit neatly into models like these. Furthermore, I hypothesize that those complex people are more likely to be the ones to switch parties at some point. Because they have the traits that make them receptive to both kinds of arguments—logical and emotional—it might take one particular issue that strikes a chord that swings them one way or another. However, I don’t think these “party switchers” are necessarily moderates; they may be just as extremely committed to those new ideals as they were the old ones. Also, these “party-switchers” might be the best ones to champion reaching across party lines; they know, to some extent, how the other side feels and how best to reach them. I would love to see further research on this cohort in particular.

Finally, how can this information be used for good (and not evil)?

Well, it’s clear that there are group differences in party thinking style. When a party is trying to rally its base and speak to their own, they will use those communication styles that work for them, which makes perfect sense. Liberals will rally with data and strong, logical arguments, and conservatives will hammer away about family values and stability. This works really well for strengthening your in-group. But it doesn’t do any good trying to cross party lines with those same tactics, because the other side just isn’t as receptive to those arguments and communication styles as you are.

So you know what this means? Yep—each side is going to have to recognize that not everyone thinks like them, processes information like them, or values the same types of things. Each party is going to have to think of,  i) what idea they are trying to communicate, ii) how that other group responds best to presentation of information (what turns them on or off), and iii) how to present it to that other group in a way that is both meaningful and non-threatening.

Yes, I know that’s asking a lot, but tough times call for tough measures. We have some scientific data here. It may not be perfect, but it’s a good start. With the state our country is in right now, I don’t think we have any choice but to cowboy up and do whatever needs to be done in order to reach some common ground. Not just one party bending, but both parties—and it needs to happen soon.


1        For a great discussion and explanation of conflict monitoring as it relates to cognitive control, check out this paper [PDF] by Botvinick, Carter, Braver, Barch, and Cohen.

2        That’s a general tendency, but there are individual exceptions.


David M. Amodio et al, Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism, Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 10, No. 10, October 2007.

Ryota Kanai et al, Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Current Biology, 21, 1-4, April 26, 2011.

Additional Reading

Matthew M. Botvinick, Jonathan D. Cohen and Cameron S. Carter, Conflict Monitoring and Anterior Cingulate Cortex: An Update, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 8, Issue 12, 539-546, 1 December 2004.

Botvinick MM, Braver TS, Barch DM, Carter CS, Cohen JD, Conflict monitoring and cognitive control. Psychol Rev. 2001 Jul;108(3):624-52.

Arne Dietrich and Michel Audiffren, The reticular-activating hypofrontality (RAH) model of acute exercise, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 35, Issue 6, May 2011, Pages 1305-1325.

Donegan et al.; Sanislow, CA; Blumberg, HP; Fulbright, RK; Lacadie, C; Skudlarski, P; Gore, JC; Olson, IR et al. (2003). “Amygdala hyperreactivity in borderline personality disorder: implications for emotional dysregulation“. Biological Psychiatry 54 (11): 1284–1293.

Kerns JG, Cohen JD, MacDonald AW 3rd, Cho RY, Stenger VA, Carter CS, Anterior cingulate conflict monitoring and adjustments in control. Science, 2004 Feb 13;303(5660):1023-6.

Krusemark, E. & Li, W. (2011). Do all threats work the same way? Divergent effects of fear and disgust on sensory perception and attention. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(9), 3429-34.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (71)

  1. Chris Mooney

    Thanks so much for an incredibly thoughtful and illuminating post…you state it just right, with all the caveats that I’ve also learned (from researching/reporting on this over the past several months) are necessary. Bravo

  2. Excellent post. The best description of the neuroscience behind political affiliation I have read outside of journal articles.

    I think you undermined your own point by asking both parties to bend, a piece of advice that is already repeated ad nauseam in political commentary. Isn’t bending changing? Doesn’t that mean that one party (ahem) is more likely to bend than the other? I am not really sure how these new insights from neuroscience will really help the federal government out of a stalemate.

  3. Thanks, Chris! Definitely a complicated topic, and may be controversial, but it’s time to talk about it. It could really help set some new standards for communication across party lines. At least, that’s my hope. 🙂

    @David: Pffft. That’s nothing. 😉

  4. Conservative

    This analysis, while pretty competent, is coming from a guy who wrote a book called “The Republican War on Science.” It is nice to see at least some of your cards on the table.

    There are a lot of contravening variables that I hoped these studies controlled for — such as socio-economic status, education levels, etc. Therefore less-educated conservatives would naturally have less active ACCs, for example.

    Also, I should point out to your readers that political science shows the most educated among us (liberal or conservative) are actually the most prone to receiving cues from their elites, perhaps because they are more equipped to do so, or perhaps because they fool themselves into thinking they are making an educated choice, when instead they are just reinforcing their prior beliefs.

    I def doubt that liberals are more flexible in their beliefs, although they may take more complex cognitive pathways to reinforce their beliefs, there are just as many red lines for liberals as there are for conservatives.

    Also, does this study even distinguish between political leaders, highly active party members, and the common man who doesn’t even take time to vote?

  5. Gaythia

    I agree. This is an incredibly thoughtful and illuminating post. I think that several things are worth re-emphasizing:

    Notably: “The brain is plastic.”

    This means that education matters, and the type of education offered matters. Is education about test scores, memorization and recitation, exploration and/or creative thinking?

    Cultural structures matter. To use an historical example, what made Athens Athens and Sparta Sparta?

    It also offers some relief to people such as myself, whose procreative efforts are strictly at replacement level. There may be some benefit to subgroups who adapt a “quiverfull” ideology, but not maxing out on reproductive efforts does not necessarily doom progressive, liberal civilization.

    While not explicitly stated above, I also think that it is very important to realize that “liberal” is not synonymous with leftist, and similarly “conservative” is not strictly analogous to rightist either. Thus there are people who end up in either of the two political slots offered in the US who fit both models. I don’t think that this makes them necessarily “more complex”. I think that the ideology of our political parties make some sense looking at their historical roots, but in modern terms are somewhat arbitrary. At the extremes, there are some leftists who are incredibly rigid thinkers, who believe that everyone should think as they do, or else. These are not “liberal” open minded thinkers. There are also some right wingers, who are libertarian in nature and not at all “conservative”.

    Recognizing that people have thoughts and feelings with deeply emotional roots which originate in real differences in how we use our brains, does not mean that we have to abandon prospects for rational civilized society. I do believe, however that it highlights the unfortunate fact that for humans, grasp of civilization is tenuous. This means that without continuous nurturing, without serious efforts at building and maintaining the key elements of civilized society, humans are eminently capable of backsliding.

    I think that having a deeper understanding of human cognitive processing will aid us in our efforts to move forward.

  6. bsci

    I don’t think “converging studies” mean what you think they mean. If the study-specific criticisms of methodology also cause results bias in other studies, then they’re all flawed, even if they get the same results. Convergence is only relevant if each study used very different approaches to get the same finding & that’s not happening here.

    There’s also the issue of publication bias. The anterior cingulate shows differences in a huge number of studies. If every political bias study identifies the ACC and a few other regions, it’s easy to ignore the fact that those other regions vary in every study & focus on the ACC.

    Feel free to speculate on broader behavioral differences based on political affiliation, but the reliability of the current brain localization studies are weak at best.

  7. Chris Mooney

    @5 No, this analysis is by Andrea Kuszewski. And I’ll let her answer any other substantive points.

  8. This was a fantastic post. I can perfectly imagine taking scientific thinking to an emotional level. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, and many others do this brilliantly. On the other hand, taking emotional thinking to a scientific level may prove a whole lot more challenging, because often, that will prompt you to re-evaluate the ideas to which you are emotionally attached. A lot of conservative ideals will have to collapse before they can argue with liberals with scientifically sound arguments. I am not saying this is impossible, just that with the Perrys, Palins and Bachmanns of today, this is not realistic.

  9. Please apply this to Joe Lieberman so that he can get some helping figuring out to which party he belongs.

  10. @Conservative

    First, thanks for reading and commenting! I tried my best to stick to the science and how the brain functions rather than anecdotes about specific political figures’ actions. That gets too messy and it isn’t science. SO, based on the science…

    In regards to the flexible/inflexible nature, I am speaking more about initial processing of information, how that belief is formed. I’ll use scientists as an example of a “liberal thinking style”, just for ease of comparison since there are many more scientists who claim to be liberal, and it’s a cohort I know a lot about.

    Scientists are trained to have an open mind (like I had to when reviewing all of this material) and view the data before them, drawing conclusions without letting personal or emotional feelings getting in the way. This is considered “flexible” because you are open to multiple interpretations, however the study goes. As a scientist, you can’t get emotionally invested in a hypothesis before the study even begins, because it murks up your evaluation of the data. You learn to be objective, and push all the emotion aside.

    Yes, scientists get attached to their ideas, once they are formed. They can be hard-headed and stubborn as hell, but if another scientific study comes along that disproves whatever working theory they had, they tend to take the new data into consideration, shifting or modifying their beliefs if necessary(in theory). That’s just how science works. You can be convicted in your beliefs, but you are open to new possibilities… like, say, the earth is round when we thought it was flat. Oh, cool! A new fact, the world is round, yay science, moving on. Flexible. Tolerating change.

    Inflexibility in processing would be closing out any alternate explanations, even in the face of contradictory evidence. In the case of conservatives, it might be a triggered response to how the information was presented: Hard data is thrown in your face, you get defensive because you are emotionally attached to your values, and you kick into survival mode.

    Another example: Over the years, I’ve had to try and convince autism parents that vaccines did not cause autism. Those parents were VERY emotionally attached to those beliefs. So when I presented data, I had to lead with empathy, and show that I cared about their child, as well as the whole family. I’ve had a very high success rate this way, when many other therapists failed. Why? They stuck with data and science, got more and more intense and forceful, and forgot all about empathy. The disgust and fear response kicks in. It’s automatic.

    Here’s the thing: We may be predisposed to a thinking style, but by only speaking to our in-group and refusing to empathize with how the other group perceives things, we are making ourselves even more polarized. The brain can change even more in that direction. So it is a perpetuating cycle.

    I hope this helps to clear some things up. 🙂

  11. Wonderful piece. Starts getting at the difference between explaining science-denialism and excusing it. More please.

  12. Oh, one more thing I want to emphasize (and I thought I did with my headline: This is wicked important!!):

    Don’t forget about the dual-processing types! That group of people, who process both at a high emotional AND a high logical level, are spread across BOTH political parties. You find them as conservatives and as liberals. This liberal/conservative two-style model only takes into account those who are most stereotypically one party or the other. So really, each party has an additional axis running through it that isn’t as obvious.

    To me, the dual-processing group is the most interesting group, because they can be catalysts for better communication.

  13. papagroove

    Good read, I would be interested to see how these results compare with more primal creatures. Ie, Are larger ACCs an evolutionary step forward for the brain? There is probably no real way to tell, but, in my observation, all signs point to yes… a larger ACC is an advancement in cognitive functionality.

    However, if studies like these continue to show the same results, then at some point we will have to address the “war on science’ by the conservative machine as nothing more than a feeble mind’s attempt to “play protectionist” against new information., right?

    Finally, these studies seem to give credit to the phrase, “truth is liberal”. No?

  14. Chris Mooney

    @14 the stephen colbert quote is “reality has a liberal bias”


  15. Dirk

    Great to have some confirmation on paper of reactions and responses typically seen in social media and on websites that discuss politics, or at least identification of Indicators in the mental processing that takes place.

    I do think you need to emphasize and expand discussion of the dual-processing types. I am now curious about how and why they operate the way they do, and if there are pointers in how they function that could be used to find ways to foster better communication, and understanding.

  16. Cecelia Gondek

    Very interesting summary of the research. I think both sides should pay attention to this information and use it to communicate effectively with the other. Will be even more interesting when there is more data for different types of people and long term data over peoples’ lives to show change.

  17. TerryEmberson

    I think this is an excellent explanation. It has me convinced on several issues. The most fundamental thing that needs to be highlighted are the four points at the end. To paraphrase, people change, people defy definitions, political parties are optional, and people often prefer social networks over political ideologies. Those points should be emphasized heavily so we don’t fall into this ‘victim’ mentality where a persons political party is thrust upon them.

    I do disagree with the label used above for change-accepting individuals. Liberalism does not equal accepting of change, but a support for individual liberty. A conservative can be liberal when the conservative is fighting against greater tyranny. I don’t know what term would be better for change-accepting individuals, but it may be better to avoid political terminology with more than three centuries of definitions behind them. Perhaps innovating thinkers and preserving thinkers. I’m sure some word smith can do better than I can.

    It should also be noted that the change/stasis dichotomy is not at the center of any political ideology of the left. Conservatives, at heart, are about protecting things the way they are, so their ideology is centered in the stasis side of that dichotomy, but no single political ideology of the left is all about ‘change for changes sake’. Liberals are about removing tyranny. Progressives are about preventing hardship and ill-behavior. Socialists are about providing freedom from insecurity and want. Communists are about providing freedom from class distinctions and the exploitation of labor. It’s all change for something.

    What happens when one of those groups gets the change they want? Do they suddenly become conservatives? I mean, usually, they become mass-murderers (even my liberalism), but brainwise, do they change? Is there some neuroscience behind why revolutionary movements have been so deadly?

  18. It sounds like the conservatives are marginally more fear-driven than the liberals, and the liberals are marginally more hope-driven than the conservatives.

    But it occurs to me that what we really need are leaders who are more function-driven (as opposed to rule-driven).

    As I see it, the failings of both liberals and conservatives is that both factions believe that problems can be solved by passing more legislation. They simply disagree on the contents of that legislation.

    Take any SMET course (Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology) and note how problems are solved. They are solved by constructing reliable system models and then solving them for best practices. That’s how one crafts functional solutions to complex problems.

  19. WW

    Interesting argument, but despite your desire to detach the science from current issues, I think this is deeply influenced by the current state of US politics. More specifically, your description of “conservatives” being more emotionally driven certainly applies to the portion of the right currently making the most noise, but not particularly well to traditional “Establishment” conservatives (think engineers and finance types). Nor does the “rational, open-minded” liberal hypothesis apply very well to activists on the far left (which does still exist, even if it gets little media coverage today). Both flavors of lunatic fringe are in fact advocating very radical change to the status quo, just in different directions. Meanwhile, the pragmatic center, whether right or left-leaning, may be more or less open to change and new experiences in their personal lives, but are not typically looking for more than incrementalism from a policy standpoint.

    I suspect that a better explanation may be that those w/large amygdalas tend to attach a lot more meaning to certain aspects of their experiences, are more likely to construct elaborate, idealized worldviews to validate and reinforce that sense of meaning, and are therefore more threatened by alternate data or ideas that might undermine the validity of the causes in which they find so much purpose and meaning.

  20. Friedrich von Hayek

    The net affect of this article, never mind the caveats offered by the author, is to claim that liberals (as a group of course!) use data and logical arguments where as conservatives appeal and respond to emotional arguments.

    Any unbiased quantitative assessment of the arguments made by small-Government conservatives vs. ever-expanding Government liberals (from 5% of GDP in 1900 to 25% in 2010) would show the exact opposite of the conclusions presented here.

    The growth in Government has been an irrational and uncontrollable that has ignored the data regarding the consequences and the logical arguments about the lack of sustainability of this growth. Only now, as we enter the end game, are an increasing number of Americans willing to set aside their myopia and normalcy bias to understand the logical arguments for small Government conservatives have been making since before FDR.

  21. @Michel – #9 …

    Here is one way to take emotional thinking to a scientific level:

    “Cognition, Affect, and Learning”

  22. Jody

    I really enjoyed this post, but I don’t think the term empathy is correct here. I think what is meant is sympathy. In my experience, conservatives tend to display a (to me shocking) lack of ability to empathize with others. They can’t understand the emotions/desires/motivations of others who don’t share their beliefs and experiences (which is empathy). They only understand those things in others when they, too, have shared beliefs and experiences, and thus want to help (sympathy).

    Jon Stewart did a good send-up of conservative Fox host Megyn Kelly, when she came back after having a kid and argued the merits of maternity leave.  He summarized her seemingly dichotomous opinions on work entitlements, highlighting the difference between sympathy and empathy:  “I just had a baby, and found out maternity leave strengthens society.  But since I still have a job, unemployment benefits are clearly socialism.”

    I guess I’m most curious as to whether a liberal’s brain can act conservatively in certain circumstances. For instance, would a liberal with an autistic child respond better to sympathetic, emotional arguments despite their natural disposition?  Does having that personal link AUTOMATICALLY make your decision-making process conservative on a subject?  And is there anything on earth we could get a conservative to move on by using logic, without their having a direct and personal connection (like, I don’t know, climate change).

  23. pj in colorado

    VERY interesting…the article and the comments. I most particularly agree with posts #17 and #18.

    How can we use this info to communicate better with one another? Shall we begin with the question in #18: Is there any way on earth we could get a conservative to move on by using logic? (I changed your question a bit, Jody, to what I believe you meant to type.)

    Nah, probably not.

    But! I would hope we would all think about this very deeply for a while and come up with some effective ways for liberals to communicate with conservatives. I believe most liberals do understand where conservatives are coming from and ‘get’ the conservative pov. So, the issue becomes how to communicate the liberal pov so that conservatives can relate to that way of seeing and understanding. Right now conservatives appear to be extremely stubborn and unyielding. Are they, really? Or just completely tied to that emotional mind set?

    Or should the responsibility for communication guidelines come from conservatives themselves? Perhaps that would be easiest. Tell us how to convince and persuade conservatives as a general group to listen to and consider the liberal pov. Each perspective has value, people!

  24. Chris Mooney

    I notice some drawing of distinctions here (different types of conservatives, different eras in the US) in order to question the overall point….but the argument accommodates those. These are tendencies we are talking about. You will always find lots of exceptions.

  25. WW

    Chris, to be sure you’ll find a lot of exceptions to any rule. However, what I was attempting to draw out in my previous comment (#20) is that the question may not be about relative openness or resistance to change, but rather the *locus* of change. The lunatic-fringe types (whether Dominionists or ecowarriors) tend to want to radically re-order the world to conform with their particular viewpoint because they fear being contaminated by or “giving in” to “bad” elements–in other words, they aggressively resist change within themselves. OTOH, the “rationalists” are more comfortable with adapting to a changing external environment, so long as the external change is not disconcertingly rapid. (None of this, BTW, has anything to do with preference for statist vs individualist policy-making–that’s just a feature (or perhaps a bug) of current political arguments.)

    And yes, a lot of this has to do with how much personal meaning or emotion is wrapped up in a particular issue. Andrea’s story about anti-vaccine parents is a very good one: people want things to happen for a reason, because once you know the reason, you can than exert some control over the situation. Especially when something bad happens, it’s very common for people to latch onto some explanation–any explanation–because it feels less scary than no explanation. That explanation, however ill-founded, helps them reconstruct a sense of order, reason and control over their world–it’s a classic coping mechanism. Attempts to take that away when someone is in a state of psychological crisis–when the amygdala is in overdrive, if you will–will almost always be met with fierce resistance, because in that moment the person is psychologically operating in survival mode. Some people are prone to globalizing their emotions around an issue or set of issues–but they can be “liberal” or “conservative” issues.

  26. Somite

    I appreciate the work and the ideas to explain why we act irrationally. However, shouldn’t we concentrate on identifying when we act irrationally regardless of cause? Your political views should be inconsequential if your proposals are backed by facts.

    Also wanted to mention the Meyers-Briggs tests. These have been shown scientifically to actually work and should carry no more weight than an horoscope. In fact, there are companies that purport to create a Meyers-Briggs profile that produce a document indistinguishable from a horoscope.

  27. Chris Mooney

    I actually have a different point, a place where I either don’t agree with Andrea (though I definitely agree with the overall thrust) or else don’t understand.

    It involves empathy. This is, according to George Lakoff, the key *liberal* emotion.

    Indeed, liberals tend towards egalitarian values, and conservatives toward the opposite–hierarchical values. Egalitarian values, I submit, are also tied up with empathy.

    So there seems to be a contradiction here, or something that needs resolving, concerning this emotion.

  28. Somite

    Obviously on my previous post I meant that Myers-Briggs tests have “not been shown to work and carry no more weight than an horoscope” *sigh*

  29. The Wikipedia article says that the ACC can be activated in an MRI scanner by something called the Eriksen flanker task, a visual experiment where “the participant is expected to respond to a centered and directed item surrounded or flanked by distracting symbols like arrows or letters.” If that sounds a little hard to visualize, you can actually do the task yourself at this website . I just did it and I had a slower time for the incongruent arrows than for the congruent arrows.

  30. ColinC

    So… now conservatives aren’t empathic? I think that that just about does it for me. I thought that this blog was more politics and science and less attack journalism. It does not add to the debate just to come on and say that you won’t be adding to the debate anymore, so allow me to say that this is complete bunk. The guest poster above as much as said that there is currently no proof behind the science that she is talking about. Its hypothetical right now. There is also only insinuation to suggest that there is a correlation between more open minded people and any specific political leanings.

  31. Everett Young

    This is a nitpicky detail…I should point out that, while it’s common to say “correlation is not causation,” this is often overinterpreted to suggest that when two variables correlate, this does not even imply a causal relationship between them of any kind–they might “just correlate.”

    If you’re dismissing correlations, then, as not suggesting causal relationships at all, you’re going too far. If two cross-sectional variables are significantly correlated (i.e., not time series variables in level-form), this absolutely DOES imply a causal relationship. It could be that A causes B, that B causes A, that they simultaneously cause each other, or that they are indirectly related, through some unobserved variable, but nonetheless causally.

    So correlation does indeed imply causation. It just doesn’t give you details about the causal story. However, when we consider the different causal stories that might explain the correlation, some inevitably will be more theoretically plausible than others, so it’s not the case that “any causal story consistent with the correlation” will do as well as any other. If you’ve got a good theory, and a strong correlation to support it, you’ve often got a good social-scientific case to make.

    So the fact that ACC size is positively correlated with liberalism does imply there’s some causal effect afoot, and I think the “ACC handles conflict, hence more ACC–>better ability to handle conflicting information–>liberal thinking style–>liberal opinion formation” story is pretty decent theory.

    BTW, the amygdala’s relationship with conservatism would seem to me to have less to do with higher levels of emotion and empathy and more to do with fear, fighting, and arousal. We’d expect fighters, warriors, and people on high alert for enemies in our midst to have enhanced amygdalae. And so conservatives, it seems, do.

    Love this thread, Chris.

  32. Everett Young

    …oh, and Andrea, too. Love the thread!

  33. Jody

    @28. Chris, that was my point in #23 as well. I think the word is sympathy, not empathy.

  34. Jonas Wiklund

    “The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. Please improve this article…”

    Seriously there are more ideologies than (us) liberalism and (us) conservatism.

  35. Everett

    @35. There are more catalogued and labeled ideologies than these two, yes. However, as long as you’re looking at post-materialist cultures (in the Inglehart sense that is, meaning cultures that have sufficiently mastered basic survival needs so that people can treat politics as abstract expressions of their values rather than as a means to keep from being killed or starving), it’s astonishing how the political divide looks so similar cross-culturally.

    I think there’s a lot of evidence that the “left” and “right” we know today represents some kind of deep, and probably psychological, divide in the human species. Welfarism versus social Darwinism, individualism versus collectivism, militarism versus pacifism, pro-immigrationism versus xenophobia, conventionalism versus acceptance of change–it’s really amazing how the same kinds of people line up on the same sides of these issues regardless of what country or culture you’re talking about. You almost NEVER get the authoritarians joining with the pro-welfare, pro-public-support-of-the-arts people–not en masse at least. In fact, I’m tempted to say never outright, at least in the last 100 years and I’ve looked for it.

    And yes, for you ideology researchers out there, I’ve read Kossowska and Van Hiel!

    I think left and right are real, and really important, things in the human political condition, and I think there’s some evidence–not a mountain of it, but enough–to feel pretty comfortable saying so.

  36. TerryEmberson

    @36 Everett:

    @35. There are more catalogued and labeled ideologies than these two, yes. However, as long as you’re looking at post-materialist cultures (in the Inglehart sense that is, meaning cultures that have sufficiently mastered basic survival needs so that people can treat politics as abstract expressions of their values rather than as a means to keep from being killed or starving), it’s astonishing how the political divide looks so similar cross-culturally.

    Which can only be validly linked to an intrinsically human characteristic if it can be shown to have occurred in post-materialist societies that have evolved separately, with little to no interaction with each other. That can’t be said to have occurred as ALL post-materialist societies have at least partially adopted the principles of liberalism when it comes to economic activity.

    I think there’s a lot of evidence that the “left” and “right” we know today represents some kind of deep, and probably psychological, divide in the human species.

    This may be true, but there is no evidence to suggest that specific policies are aligned to any individual way of thinking. The most militaristic societies on earth today are leftist governments. Reformers in China support free market reforms while conservatives want to slow any such reform down. Therefore the radical left support ‘social darwinism’ while the conservative right supports the social welfare state.

  37. Chris Mooney

    #37 is basically making the standard communist countries objection, but this has been answered extensively

  38. Jonas Wiklund

    @36. Everett

    In e.g. Holland and Scandinavia social liberalism and a big well-fare state is the status quo. My personal experience from these countries (not backed up by any data, I might add) is that most people on the “left”, by which I mean proponents of social-democracy, in general appeal much more to emotions in their political arguments, why those on the “right”, i.e. centre-right, use more arguments that appeal to reason and data.

  39. justaguy

    I wonder what the political affiliation/bent of the author is (I’m almost begging the question, aren’t I?), and I wonder if one with predilections from an opposing party would interpret the results the way she has (again, question begging).

  40. TerryEmberson

    @39. Chris Mooney Says:

    #37 is basically making the standard communist countries objection, but this has been answered extensively

    I’m not sure what the standard communist countries objection is, so I can’t speak to that argument. The Jost et al. “Exceptions” article, however, is not a good pick. Most of the article is a tortuous attempt to explain that the exceptions do not make the rule they are trying to promote while failing to note that the “exceptions” account for the majority of the historical, empirical cases for the last 100 years. Even trying to call China the ‘exception’ that proves the rule is ironic, China may be one country, but it accounts for 1/6th of the population of the world!

    These authors have been criticized in the field for exhibiting bias in their sample selections for their earlier study. Other authors in the field have demonstrated that the majority of the modern U.S. right’s political philosophy is not to preserve the status quo but rather to create change toward some imagined ‘purer’ traditional set of values, to which they respond that this is desired change is less change-like.

    Essentially, their argument is that because the right wants change toward an imagined historical utopia it is functionally different from the left’s desire for change toward an imagined counter-factual utopia. The Jost paper focuses on resistance to change and acceptance of inequality as universal ‘conservative values’, which just hasn’t been supported by any extensive research except their own and is disproven by their own arguments. Additionally, their arguments that authoritarianism is a conservative personality type absolutely misses the mark when you look at basic history. Countries that support free market economics have fewer incidents of authoritarianism than countries that do not support free market economics. That empirically violates their argument. Considering all of the other totalitarian, resistant to change leftist regimes and the whole narrative of the authors falls apart.

    Where the authors come the closest to discussing my point above is when they admit that a 1987 Soviet leader is likely to be a very “different sort of person” than a 1917 Soviet leader. They state that, in that case, a ‘liberal’ will support change toward free-market capitalism (when they also deem inegalitarian, a comment that just proves that they don’t understand free-market capitalism). Since free-market capitalism is a liberal concept, I guess they shouldn’t be surprised about that,

    Now, this was essentially my point above. A dynamic thinker will be much more likely to support free-market economics in China than would a static thinker.

    I support the argument that there are dynamic thinkers and static thinkers, but I don’t think that aligns up to specific policy proscriptions as much as you’d like to believe. I true, dyed in the wool free market ideologue is more willing to embrace uncertainty and change than the most hide-bound social democrat.

  41. James Carpenter

    Fundamentally this is junk science because the test subjects numbering less than 50 are mostly college students which exclude vast bastions of lessor educated liberals or conservatives. Drawing any conclusion about a larger population from a small highly exclusive population is harmful and says far more about the researchers publishing the study and their intentions than any conclusion about the subjects at hand.

    As someone who is socially liberal this study does little more than confirm liberal policies fail simply because liberals desire to drink their own Kool-Aid. For example, current educational policy encourages parents to move to the best school districts they can afford resulting in massive poverty in poorly performing school districts. Public expenditures of 150% to 200% per student in poorly performing districts have not resulted in improvement for students in these districts. When does the emperor admit they have no clothes? A truly educated person easily admits when they have failed, goes back to the drawing board and looks at ways to fix their error.

  42. Chris Mooney

    #43 I didn’t know Nature Neuroscience publishes “junk science.” I’m pretty sure they know what is an adequate sample size for a neuroscience study of this type.

  43. Chris Mooney

    @42 first, who exactly is rejecting this finding? I am not aware of many psychologists questioning it.

    Second, the argument about conservatives and change makes perfect sense. They want *change* to something perceived as prior. This is not at all the same thing as the kind of change that progressives want.

    Everett and I aren’t contesting that in a stable left wing regime, the more open-minded may want to “liberalize” by bringing in the free market.

  44. TerryEmberson

    @46 Chris Mooney:
    Thank you for using the term progressives, not liberals.

    Responding to first:
    Psychological motives and political orientation–The left, the right, and the rigid: Comment on Jost et al. (2003).
    Psychological Bulletin, Vol 129(3), May 2003, 376-382. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.376

    This was the commentary thet Jost et al. were responding to in exceptions.

    Is Political Conservatism Synonymous With Authoritarianism?
    The Journal of Social Psychology Vol 145(5), October 2005, 571 – 592. doi: 10.3200/SOCP.145.5.571-592

    finds that authoritarianism is not synonymous to Conservativism, despite Jost et al. 2003.

    Also, even simply looking at the samples, Not one of the Jost et al. samples was in Asia. Not one was in Central Africa. South Africa is essentially governed by liberalism and western thought today. The only sample in the Middle East was in Israel. In essence, Israel is also a western country, but drifting away from Western thought. This survey was a sampling of ONLY western civilization and can not claim to the universality of conservative thought.At most, the Jost paper may make an argument for the shape of conservatives in the West, which is essentially governed by liberalism in both its conservative and progressive thought. It does not make an effective argument for the universality of conservative psychology.

    The earlier Jost et al paper also claims that conservatives are more superstitious on balance, which it uses to support the argument that conservatives are more emotional, but gallup polling has long shown that with the exception of religiosity, conservatives are less superstitious on balance than self-described liberals. The Jost paper ignores that fact to create its argument.

    Only the fact that Jost and Kruglanski are prolific writers has created the impression that this data is well backed up. That and the fact that an academy that discriminates against conservatives is unlikely to produce many papers which contradict any argument which puts conservatives in a bad light. Any rational study of political history teaches anyone who cares to look that authoritarianism is universal and egalitarian leftist regimes have been as authoritarian as hierarchical rightist regimes.

    As to the second: It still serves to undermine the argument conservatives are not change seeking. It may be of interest to look at NORC’s General Social Surveys. Over 16000 respondents, among whom were conservatives and liberals who were asked to rank the top criteria they seek in jobs. The top criteria for both leftist and rightists was interesting work, but the second criteria was potential for advancement for the right-wing respondents while it was higher pay for the left-wing respondents. In this case, the right-wing were looking for greater opportunity for change (advancement) while the liberals were looking for greater stability.

    There is more complexity here that needs to be ferreted out. It may be a good argument, but right now it is shaded to make conservatives look bad. If you’ll look at my earlier argument, however, I recognize that conservatives value stability over change. I just don’t think that free-market economics vs. controlled economics can be tied to a psychological characteristic. Free-market economics actually requires people to embrace the uncertain, meaning its more aptly a liberal position (and is in fact has been a liberal position through out history, but w/e) than a conservative one as Everett argued.

    I am a liberal, not a conservative and not a progressive. I happen to agree with Republicans more today because they are more liberal than the Democrats in trying to protect economic freedoms and prevent government theft of property, but I also side more with the Democrats when the Republicans try to enforce some ridiculous morality on civil society. I don’t actively seek change in political systems, but I seek growth in civil society, which I believe more valuable than all of the government endeavor ever. No democracy can exist without a robust civil society, yet much leftist thought is based on homogenizing society to get rid of dissent. I can not abide that.

  45. James Carpenter

    #44 If the study is referring to liberal verses conservative college students at UCLA as defined, it’s accurate… however extrapolating this study to the population at large of liberals and conservatives would be bad science without significant statistical sampling of diverse socioeconomic groups to see if liberals and conservatives at large follow the initial trend. College students at a single major university are highly filtered by means of the university’s admission process, there is little randomization of this sample population and this can lean to anomalous results. Hence while interesting and perhaps merits further study this single result is of no value in itself.

  46. J.I. Smith

    One interesting conclusion we can draw is that just as humans need to be both logical and emotional to peform best in life, we equally need both liberals and conservatives for different but important reasons in order for society to be at its best. That is, the liberals are somewhat like the ‘research and development’ department that creates new strategies and ideas about how best to live and how to solve problems. But because they’re experimenting, there’s always a danger that they’ll make mistakes or create new problems, so the conservatives are needed to provide stability and order by lauding the tried and tested approaches. In short, too much stability and we stagnate; too much innovation and we disintegrate. (I’m a liberal — well, a socialist, which is still a relatively respected thing to be here in Britain — though.)

  47. Dr Larry Van hook

    I think the studies are valid explorations, but this paper suffers from what used to be called the “paradigm effect.” The writer is liberal and so delights in (or assumes from the template) that liberals are smarter than conservatives. This fits squarely with the conservative stereotype that liberals are arrogant. The writer’s paradigm, it appears to me, assumes conservatives are less discerning and more emotionally driven. One could equally interpret the results to mean that conservatives are more compassionate and ethical since empathy is the central element in these valued-traits. In addition, conservatives would generally make better leaders since emotional self-awareness and empathy are central components in emotional intelligence. Since the enlargement is on the right amygdala, conservatives are better able to control their emotions making them less prone to sophistry or demagoguery. This also enhances their ability to lead since they are better able to respond to changing circumstances without a purely visceral reaction. In other words, greater emotional self-management makes them more objective and principle-driven.

  48. Chris Mooney

    #49–that would be great, if liberals and conservatives could actually get along, and do the things they’re good at and let the other group do the things they’re good at….but you don’t exactly see it working that way right now, do you?

    # 50–were you under the impression that it is opposite day? That’s the only way that one can understand your post. I’ll give you conservatives being better leaders sometimes, though.

  49. @50 You said:

    “Since the enlargement is on the right amygdala, conservatives are better able to control their emotions making them less prone to sophistry or demagoguery.”

    This is actually 100% wrong. The enlargement of the right amygdala assumes that the person engages in *suppression* of emotions rather than *reappraisal* (which is activated by the left). As demonstrated in the paper I linked to regarding emotion regulation strategies (as well as numerous other references I can provide you with at request), suppression is NOT an effective emotion regulation strategy; those individuals that engage in suppression rather than reappraisal, or intellectualizing strategies, are LESS effective at regulating emotions. So your entire premise is false.

    This actually makes them LESS likely to use effective strategies of regulation in times of crisis. As I pointed out, excessive emotional input interferes with cognition (remember my example of getting in a fight right before having to engage in a cognitive task), so this isn’t helpful at all. Many studies have shown an increase in regulation using reappraisal, and increased stress and less regulation help using suppression. The literature on this concept alone is very fascinating. I can make some recommendations if you want further reading on this.

    You also stated:

    “This also enhances their ability to lead since they are better able to respond to changing circumstances without a purely visceral reaction. In other words, greater emotional self-management makes them more objective and principle-driven.”

    That again, is 100% false. Conservatives are MORE likely to respond with a visceral reaction, not less (that is mentioned in the direct quote from the research). Regarding greater emotional self-management and being objective and principle-driven, you are right—those qualities would be valued in leaders. But those are traits of the liberal thinking style, not conservative. I think you might be projecting an expectation bias into your reading of the article. Or maybe I wasn’t very clear on that aspect? I know it’s a complicated topic. Let me know if there is anything else you have possibly misinterpreted, and I will try and clear that up as well.

  50. Dr Larry Van hook

    Chris, from #51, all I wanted to argue is that, as it currently stands, one could interpret the data much more subjectively, and in accordance with one’s political orientation than is implied here. I don’t think the science has advanced enough to draw any conclusions. First, there are too many cultural laden definitions at play. You cannot study the brains of conservatives if the label is fluid to begin with. Secondly, it is the liberal brain that gets to frame the study, and therefore the debate. This is an interesting intellectual exercise but drawing hard conclusions is really premature. The ability of the above readers to draw diametrically opposed conclusions is evidence of that.

  51. Chris Mooney

    There is an argument for conservative leadership skills that involves decisiveness, rather than being unable to make up your mind…there is also a conservative strength/liberal weakness in negotiation, as we saw in the debt ceiling debate, with liberals more willing to compromise.

  52. Dr Larry Van hook

    #52 Andrea, I can see you have a repulsion at the suggestion that conservatives might be the way described (#50). Unfortunately, you are fallaciously slanting the the idea of suppression of emotion. Suppression in this sense is not value-laden. Suppression is simply keeping them in check, a purely adaptive function. You also assume that greater suppression means less appraisal. This does not follow. These functions work holistically in the brain. I hope, as a side note, you understand the ethical implications of your conclusions? Remember the “bell curve” argument about blacks some years ago? It was rightly criticized just as yours is here. I can take the exact same data and draw a rational conclusion opposite of yours (even if you disagree). If the research only muddies the water, conclusions based on the data are likely premature. In the end this is just another way to dismiss a whole people-group as less intelligent or capable. I assume as a liberal you are repulsed by that too?

  53. @56 Well, I could write a thesis here on the different types of emotion regulation strategies, but frankly, I don’t have the time. It is obvious you are trying to provoke me and are teetering on the edge of insulting my scientific integrity, and.. well, I don’t play those games on the web. Sorry to spoil the fun.

    However, I did find a short, easy to read comprehensive look at the different types of emotion regulation strategies and their effectiveness, and providing the link for you.

    “Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences” by James Gross

    From the paper:

    “Do some emotion regulation strategies have more to recommend them than others? According to Gross’s ~1998, Review of General Psychology, process model of emotion regulation, strategies that act early in the emotion-generative process should have a different profile of consequences than strategies that act later on. This review focuses on two commonly used strategies for down-regulating emotion. The first, reappraisal, comes early in the emotion-generative process. It consists of changing the way a situation is construed so as to decrease its emotional impact. The second, suppression, comes later in the emotiongenerative process. It consists of inhibiting the outward signs of inner feelings. Experimental and individual-difference studies find reappraisal is often more effective than suppression. Reappraisal decreases emotion experience and behavioral expression, and has no impact on memory. By contrast, suppression decreases behavioral expression, but fails to decrease emotion experience, and actually impairs memory. Suppression also increases physiological responding for suppressors and their social partners. This review concludes with a consideration of five important directions for future research on emotion regulation processes.”

    I highly recommend reading the entire paper. It’s quite accessible.

    Also, on anger provocation and emotion regulation strategies:

    And another: (The Unconscious Regulation of Emotion: Nonconscious Reappraisal Goals Modulate Emotional Reactivity)

    I hope these help. Thanks again for commenting and showing such interest in the topic!

  54. @Chris: You are absolutely right—there are definitely some conservative leadership skills that are valuable and effective. I was merely pointing out to Dr Larry that he was misattributing the traits described in the article to the wrong cohort.

  55. Dan Castro

    I wasn’t as surprised by the findings as the attempts to disclaim any final conclusions. I understand that this is science and there are no final answers, but why so much about why these findings are not conclusive? Obviously, this is a very exciting area, albeit a work in progress. I also hope we can finally begin to bring out into the open those ideas that we have learned from torturing millions of our chimp cousins and seeing how they (mining the studies) might help us out of the world mess we are in! Is our evolved brain as “in control” as our instincts when faced with uncertain or perilous alternatives?

  56. Chris Mooney

    Glad we’re agreed on that. What you say about conservatives and suppression/reappraisal is fascinating, but new to me. So when a conservative receives an information stimulus that causes anger–e.g., new scientific consensus report comes out showing humans are causing global warming….well, then what, exactly? And can we really build to this conclusion based on different use/size of the two amygdalae?

  57. Dr Larry Van Hook

    Chris (#60), you ask the most important question! My opinion is that you cannot judge a philosophy (and that what conservatism is) and its adherents based solely on the size of one portion of the brain any more than you can judge the intelligence of certain races or nationalities. Despite Andreas dogmatism on this issue, these studies do not prove anything simply because we don’t know what came first. There was one study that showed that gay men had enlarged amygdala. Does this mean that gay men are conservative thinkers? Many conservatives I know are constantly suppressing their emotions because of their grief on seeing the destruction of a way of life, or holding back anger at being called stupid, racist, or uncaring–when none of these things are true empirically or anecdotally. I don’t mean to judge the writer, I don’t know her and I assume she thinks she is being objective, but this article was insensitive and only exacerbates conservative skepticism of science–which they believe is untrustworthy due to its politicization. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence–neither these studies nor Andrea do this, especially when castigating so many. Conservatives are stupid because they have slightly larger amygdala? Really?!

  58. Saje Williams

    Goes with what I have been saying for quite some time. Conservatives, as a type, have opposed, as far as we know, every single social, political, economic, and technological advance in the history of mankind ( It’s certainly possible that Ogg didn’t attack Ugg for being a witch because he discovered how to harness fire, but I wouldn’t bet on it). Then, once something has become common, they embrace it and then act like they invented it. Remember, it was the conservatives who didn’t want to abandon feudalism for capitalism, or abandon the monarchy for democracy. We tried unfettered capitalism back in the day. It was a disaster. That’s why we eventually chained it and attempted to bring it to heel. Imagine that.

  59. I enjoyed your post, but it is flawed by assuming the conclusion. You’re using “liberal” and “conservative” tags and associating them with liberal/conservative mainstays like pro/anti gay rights. But the _data_ talk about people being (i) in favor of/resistant to change and (ii) logical/emotional. You imply that people we consider stereotypical conservatives are emotional and anti-change, while those we consider liberal are logical and pro-change.

    None of these 3 (stereotypes, change, logic) need be correlated. We currently have affirmative action, social security, and a budget deficit. These have been around for the lifetime of most people. But the people who want change—elimination of these things—are generally ones we would label conservative. And the liberals who are working hard to defend these ideas. There’s also no clear indication that liking logic and liking change are correlated—what happens if logic says don’t change?

  60. pun the librarian

    Great article and very well in line with what I have read on the subject.

    Only problem I have with your reasoning is that you say liberal style of thinking is more in line with scientific thinking. I don’t think that liberal thought process translates that easily into “Checks out scientifically = valuable”.

    Another Discover magazine blogger Razib at GNXP recently wrote a few posts on how conservatives and republicans are more sceptical about astrology than liberals and democrats. This would be in line with conservative thinking being against change and liberal thinking leaning towards novelty. But if his figures are correct, liberals “armed with data, research studies, and experts” are more likely than conservatives to reach a wrong conclusion, at least in the case of astrology.

  61. I have some issues with this article. Namely, it’s not clear how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are being applied to politics or to policy positions. The few attempts at drawing correlations between policies and the notion of “change” vs “consistency” were selective at best.

    For example, conservatives in America are ardently against federal programs like Social Security, even though the program has been around for as long as just about anyone alive in America can remember and its a tremendously stable system of consistency, that provides not only individual stability in old age, but stability to the entire American economy.

    Another major example of how conservative policy positions conflict with the so-called conservative mindset is conservative support for “free market capitalism” itself. Let’s not forget that “free market capitalism” was a product of the liberal revolutions of the 19th century, and its fundamentally the most liberalizing force in American society, yet certainly “liberals” are far more against it and conservatives religiously support it.

    Indeed I would argue that the driving force behind almost everything that conservatives rail against is “free market capitalism”. There is no more fundamental force driving social and technological change in the world that “free market capitalism”, yet where are the conservatives calling for it’s overthrow?

    Of course I’ve also long believed that most American conservatives would have been supporters of Stalin had they been born into the Soviet Union.

    As for “family values”, again, it is the liberals who want to enforce a more European style system with more paid time off for mothers and fathers to care for their children, and it is liberals who are the main force against the corporate takeover of family life. “The family” is under attack from corporations, and government is the only means by which we can collectively fend off corporate attacks on the family, yet “conservatives” side with the corporations thereby enabling the radical transformation of American society from a society controlled by families to a society controlled by corporations.

    Fundamentally what we call “conservative” policies in America are at the root of the radical transformation of American society, and what we call “liberal” policies are really the attempts to preserve pre-industrial, pre-capitalist modes of society.

    Free-market capitalist industrialization is radical, it is the driving force of radical social transformation. How can the fact that free-market capitalist industrialization is supported by “conservatives” and maligned by “liberals” be reconciled with the analysis you have provided here?

    I’m not saying that it can’t, or that I don’t already understand some ways that it can be, but I think this is something that needs much deeper analysis, both cognitively, socially, and politically.

  62. Matthew Saunders


    as always, interesting stuff. Do you know if anyone has done a study/test/whichever on seeing if someone can be intentionally made Conservative?

  63. Chris Mooney

    Making liberals conservative appears to be pretty easy

  64. Zily_Popygaj

    What’s interesting is both the article, and some of the extensive extrapolations being drawn from it.

    I think that some of those extrapolations generally derive from a lack of understanding that, in the US today, there is a large and growing gap between the actual definition of a sociopolitical term, and both its usage by politicians, and its assumed meaning by the average voter. Gaythia touches upon this concept in her comment noting that “left” does not necessarily equal “liberal/progressive” just as “right” does not necessarily equal “conservative”. I also see of a tendency among the “pro-conservative” writers to take this study more personally in a negative way, with attempts to imply that “liberals” are “just as bad” as the “pro-conservative” writes seem to perceive the study supposedly makes conservatives seem.

    Terry Emberson had commented that: “Any rational study of political history teaches anyone who cares to look that authoritarianism is universal and egalitarian leftist regimes have been as authoritarian as hierarchical rightist regimes.” In reality, however, what such a rational study shows is that “left” not only does not automatically mean “egalitarian”, but also can embrace its own form of elitism and repression of the non-elites.

    Later on, Pun the Librarian commented that: “I don’t think that liberal thought process translates that easily into “Checks out scientifically = valuable”.” Again, however, this is an incorrect perception based, it appears to me, upon assuming that the idea of more emotion-based decision making is being claimed as inferior.

    There were later comments to the effect that “…you cannot judge a philosophy (and that what conservatism is) and its adherents based solely on the size of one portion of the brain…”, and again, this seems to be a personalization of specific subunits of the study.

    This personalization, and subsequent, is something I’ve generally observed in most “liberal”–“conservative” exchanges. What it most reminds me of is the book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, which pointed out that, *generally*, there are differences in perception and communication which, when examined and understood, can have a positive effect on relationships.

    This is the same focus of the Meyers-Briggs and other personality tests: when we learn how others perceive the world and make decisions, we can at least deal with one another on the basis of that understanding, as opposed to blind opposition.

    To that end, I disagree with Kevin’s comment that: “I think you undermined your own point by asking both parties to bend”, because the salient point is not to ask people to “bend” so much as it is to ask them to understand.

    So, for example, if Person A takes a statement personally, instead of Person B merely assuming that A is “stupid”, B can instead understand that what’s probably going on is that A feels undervalued. Similarly, A can try to understand that B is thinking and speaking more generally, trying to take all factors into consideration equally.

    Meanwhile, I found Andrea Kuszewski’s differentiation between emotional reappraisal and emotional suppression both cogent, and in keeping with my own observations of others and also of my own experience with my personal evolution. I think this is also far from being in any way judgmental, and actually, a highly useful tool for improving how we relate to, and work with, others. For the person who quickly reassesses an emotion and re-forms the reaction, it’s useful and important to recognize that the person who *supresses*the emotion can still be experiencing it acutely, and realize that this is a completely valid human experience that needs to be taken into account as such. And similarly, the person who supresses emotion is helped by understanding that the “reassessors” are not intentionally seeking to “invalidate” the still-experienced emotions – they simply have a different method of coping with them.

    IMO, this is the about the most basic, fundamental social and relationship information one can have- and yet, it is information that is almost never actually *taught*. Instead, it seems that we are taught to be so self-focused that we forget that different poeple are different, that we are all INDIVIDUALS – which is rather a cruel irony in a culture that ostensibly values individualism…

  65. Matthew Hawn

    Ms. Kuszewski, Andrea, fantastic post! I plan on sharing this! It was quite an interesting read. And I can definitely tell after reading a few of the comments that people did not do as you suggested – to read the ENTIRE post!

    I completely agree with your final part of the post, that we must learn to communicate better. I have gotten into arguments where I am citing this, that, and ten others, while the other person just yells things at me. At least it makes a little more sense than me calling him/her batsh*t crazy.

    And to the so-called Liberal #47 – Terry? While it is not addressed in this article, I could not help but ask, WHEN in recent history, have Republicans been LIBERAL about ANYTHING? ANYTHING? Liberal: marked by generosity, open-handed.

  66. @ 65. rational revolution – I think you might be trapped in an ideological reality tunnel.

    Let me take your own example:

    “For example, conservatives in America are ardently against federal programs like Social Security, even though the program has been around for as long as just about anyone alive in America can remember and its a tremendously stable system of consistency, that provides not only individual stability in old age, but stability to the entire American economy.”

    Many conservatives and Republicans would like to reform Social Security, but very few are ardently against it. Diverse data proves my point:

    I have no desire to analyze your long post. I just wanted to show how disconnected your analysis is from the actual data. By your own definitions, you know what ‘conservatives’ should be for and against. But apparently your definitions aren’t the same as the basic beliefs and values that motivate most American conservatives.

    I will, however, offer a simple explanation for your confusing right-wing/left-wing ideology with ‘liberal’/’conservative’ psychological predisposition:

    “[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

    “I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

    “[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

    “When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.”

    “Liberalism and conservatism aren’t specific ideologies so much as they are general attitudes. By definition, a conservative wishes to conserve and a liberal does not. This brings us to one of the problem of American politics. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” So, conservatism will criticize the living breathing liberalism of the moment often in defense of the fossilized liberalism of the past. This is why conservatives will claim classical liberalism as their own. Liberalism of the past is safe because it’s been cleansed of all unknown, and hence uncontrollable, elements. Even though neither is a specific ideology, conservatism is forever seeking to conserve the ideologies of the past whether they are considered liberal or conservative. Conservatives in the past would have criticized classical liberalism, but conservatives today can safely admire it because it’s been made into a set doctrine. This might also explain why many Americans identify as conservative even as they hold traditionally ‘liberal’ positions. Progressive policies were liberal when they were first proposed, but now that they’ve been established for almost a century they’ve become a part of the American tradition and so many conservatives will seek to conserve something like Social Security.

    “Liberalism, by nature, is constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, constantly trying new things (or putting old things in new contexts). As such, liberalism isn’t a single set of beliefs and policies. When conservatives are getting used to classical liberalism, liberals are already onto another original concept or system. Liberals adapt to present circumstances seeking to go in new directions.”


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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 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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