Talking Heads: Is There Cognitive Diversity Between the Left and Right?

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

If you follow political debates in the media these days, you might have noticed something — it’s nasty out there. Right-wing commentators on radio and TV blame the left for undermining the very fabric of society, while liberal activists bemoan what they see as the heartless determination of conservatives to preserve old, harmful cultural patterns. Even on the internet, discussion forums allow people to bash those with opposing political views anonymously and ruthlessly, without much consequence. The worldviews and problem-solving approaches they have are so different, it sometimes seems like there are two different species of humans, each with totally different ways of processing information from the world around them.

Can it be possible that people with different political philosophies have different kinds of brains? Well, we know for sure that there are no obvious anatomical differences. In other words, as likely as it may seem to you, people with obnoxious opinions contradicting your own are not missing parts of their brains. However, there do seem to be distinct ways in which people use their brains, and these unique cognitive styles may account for political differences.

It’s a question that psychologists began to investigate in the early 1970s, as the United States was embroiled in the Watergate scandal and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The earliest observations did not look good for people who described themselves as “politically conservative.” Study after study correlated higher degrees of conservatism with low IQs and low educational achievement. Psychologists described conservatives as highly fear-based and heavily authoritarian by nature. Neuroscientists noted lower density of brain matter in the prefrontal cortex of conservatives, a physical symptom consistent with lower cognitive ability. They also noticed that the brains of people with right-wing tendencies tend to default more easily toward a fear response in difficult situations than “liberal” brains. It were these findings that led the researchers to suggest that conservatives cling to old models of social structure because they simply lack the intellectual capacity for understanding complex social problems, or to concoct solutions for these problems.

More recently, however, some psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to question these data, finding them a little too black-and-white to be scientifically comfortable. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt conducted an informal poll that indicated a potential bias problem — 80 to 90 percent of his colleagues in the institutions he polled identified themselves as “liberal.”

After delving into the question more deeply, Haidt wrote the book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” In it, he postulates that both “liberal” and “conservative” brains have a role to play in society, and that demonizing either side is not constructive. Society, he speculates, is comprised of a push and pull between the two forces, and either way of thinking can lead to despotism if allowed to thrive unchecked. In the book, Haidt contends that conservatives may possess a kind of intelligence that is not reflected in IQ scores — intuitive understanding of human nature. He believes that an idealized concept of human nature is the fundamental blind spot of the liberal mind, and he cites a number of failed social programs as evidence of that fact. The “blind spot” of the conservative mind, on the other hand, is the tendency to cling to traditional social structures, even when they’ve proven to be dysfunctional or irrelevant.

Neurologists agree that there are indeed two distinct cognitive styles that could be classified as “liberal” and “conservative.” In one study, college students were instructed to tap a keyboard when an “M” appeared on a computer screen, and not to tap if a “W’ appeared. Four out of every five letters was an “M,” so participants were conditioned to tap most of the time. During the activity, an electroencephalography (EEG) machine recorded activity in the students’ anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that helps us choose between habitual tendencies and appropriate responses. Students who identified as “liberal” had significantly more activity in that brain region and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when recognizing the letter “W,” the letter that appeared less frequently. However, both were equally able to identify the letter “M.” The researchers suggested that this reflects the liberal brain’s ability to recognize and accept new patterns more easily. However, the conservative brain’s ability to block out novel information (“W”) in favor of the tried and true (“M”) may have its evolutionary advantages.

Although it may seem as though heated political dissent is just a product of our changing times, the result of being bombarded with news updates everywhere we turn, from our cable news stations and iPads, to our phones and email alerts, there’s hardly anything new under the sun. Shouting down political opponents has probably been with us, in some shape or form, since the earliest days of homo sapiens. Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa proposed a Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis in his provocatively titled paper, “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.” Essentially, Kanazawa argues that our prehistoric ancestors developed two significantly different cognitive perspectives in response to the world around them. Early humans needed a few highly intelligent, risk-taking individuals who were able to find novel ways to survive, and they also needed a number of less adventurous sorts who contributed to the cohesion of the tribe or clan to ensure the survival of future generations.

He’s not the only one to trace politics back to the Stone Age. Michael Bang Petersen, an evolutionary psychologist, has suggested that the problem of wealth distribution — a constant source of contention between liberals and conservatives — has likely been with humans since hominids first roamed the African savannah, where they lived constantly under the fear of attacks from predators, with whom they also competed for food. Because no individual could survive alone, everyone benefitted in the long run. Maintaining a system that ensured individuals were rewarded for exemplary behavior, while all members of the group received basic necessities, would be the most ideal system for community living.

Given these differences, you may be wondering how much impact you had in choosing your own political orientation. Did personal experience etch these differences into our brains — why we feel so strongly about ObamaCare or the NSA — or are people just born with these tendencies? And why are one country’s economic and social policies so different from another’s? Research into the science behind our political views is still in the beginning stages, but there may be a genetic basis for the differences.

In a recent study titled “A Genome-Wide Analysis of Liberal and Conservative Political Attitudes,” a group of researchers collected DNA from 13,000 respondents who were asked to complete surveys regarding their political attitudes. The researchers concluded that there are significant linkage peaks between the answers and the respondents’ DNA, suggesting that there might be a possible genetic basis for one’s political worldview.

So, if political dissent is built into the human experience, then how do we get along with Republicans or Democrats? It may be as simple as moderating our own views and appreciating what is useful in opposing points of view. In fact, one study found that moderate “centrists” were typically more intelligent than “radicals” on either side of the political spectrum.

Susan Heitler, a psychologist and relationship expert writing for Psychology Today, suggests the following to avoid letting political differences undermine relationships: “Keep your ears open so that you can listen for what makes sense in what others say. Treat what others say respectfully, listening in the best possible light to their differing perspective.” It has been said that we learn everything we need to know in kindergarten, so there you go. Bashing others over the head with our opinions will probably do little good anyway, so we might as well be nice, and occasionally agree to disagree.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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