This is your brain on “M” and “W” – is ideology hardwired?

The Situationist Blog provides a nice account of the recent studies on whether liberal and conservative inclinations are driven by neurologically hardwired methods of perceiving the world. See an edited version below the fold.

A study published in the most recent issue of Nature Neuroscience tests the hypothesis that those differences relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning. The Los Angeles Times reports: Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show “there are two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style,” said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

top view drawing of a brainParticipants were college students whose politics ranged from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results “provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity.”

Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.…

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

“There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science,” said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals.

For a sample of other Situationist posts about political ideology and the brain, see Ideology is Back!, Heart, Brain, or Wallet . . . How Do You Vote?, and Your Brain on Politics. For previous posts discussing the plasticity of the brain, see “Brainicize” and “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain.”

One Response to This is your brain on “M” and “W” – is ideology hardwired?

  1. perhaps a liberals hatred for the letter W has something to do with the results…