Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?
Posted by Chloe Cockburn on September 15, 2007
In 2004, Professor George Lakoff rocketed into the public sphere with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which sought to explain how conservatives and liberals conceptualize the world in different ways. Lakoff drew attention to differences at the level of perceived social structure, pointing out that conservatives and liberals maintain quite disparate models of the ideal family, which in turn reflect each group’s conception of the proper relationship between individuals and authority. In 2003, Situationist contributor John Jost and several co-authors published a meta-analysis of numerous studies finding that conservatives tend to be more persistent and structured than liberals in their judgments and decision styles — as measured, for instance, by relative needs for order and closure and relative tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. These differences in approaches to decision-making across ideological groups raise questions about their possible sources. 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.
Participants 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.
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The author of the quoted L.A. Times article and others who have commented on this study have drawn the conclusion that “liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.” However, this conclusion is too hastily reached. The study’s association of ideological tenants with certain brain patterns does not indicate whether certain people are mentally predisposed to be more liberal or conservative, or instead whether adopting liberal or conservative behaviors changes the way we process information. While the association of conflict management behaviors with liberal beliefs could support the theory that there is a biological source for individual ideologies, we should be cautious.
For example, in a study recently reported in the Economist, a team led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto conducted a spatial recognition test and found that men were more successful than women at identifying a strange object in the visual field. This would seem to support the hypothesis that women are “wired” differently with regards to special recognition skills. However, after both groups played ten hours of “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault,” a violent video game, the women scored just as well as the men on the test. This effect persisted for at least five months. Thus, a seemingly hard wired genetic trait was something that could be learned in a number of hours. If the case of political ideology, a similar shift in cognitive processing of conflict and ambiguity could be induced by a short term event.
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.”
This entry was posted on September 15, 2007 at 10:00 pm and is filed under Choice Myth, Conflict, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.