Politics & Policy

Hard-Wired Right

Another specious scientific claim.

A new study announces that conservatives and liberals have different brain wiring. This isn’t the first such study, nor will it be the last. Just a few years ago, in fact, I pounded my keyboard like a gorilla going after a piece of Samsonite over a somewhat similar study. But for reasons that perplex me, these things are taken quite seriously by a lot of folks.

As for me, as I indicated yesterday, I think this study is just a continuation of a long line of craptacular research. So, let me expand on the craptacularity.

Let’s start with the Los Angeles Times write-up:

In a simple experiment reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

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….

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. 

There were also several paragraphs like these from experts:

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.

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.”

Okay, so where to begin? Let’s start with some of the other possible interpretations of these tests. Studies suggest that changes in the activity of the mind can change the wiring of the brain. So perhaps these scientists have the cause-and-effect backwards. Perhaps becoming conservative changes your wiring rather than the wiring makes you conservative.  

Or instead, maybe the hurly-burly of college life — or simply the age and ignorance of the college students  – makes these distinctions more pronounced as students are long on glandular passion and shorter on introspection.

Or perhaps, self-described conservatives are for neurological — or entirely ideological — reasons less eager to impress a bunch of guys in a lab coat. A recent — and, to be fair, very modest study — suggested that liberals care more about status while conservatives care more about money. So maybe, the young liberals saw an advantage that was lost on the conservatives, and thus the liberals tried harder. Perhaps the liberal kids thought that they could get a gold star from the man in the white coat — and if they tried hard enough, maybe even an internship! Meanwhile, the conservative might have said to himself, “this is craptacular” and lost interest. One way of producing more accurate results might be to re-run the test with the addition of cash incentives and see what happens.

On the other hand there may just be variables at work here than we cannot grasp easily. As is frequently the case, a mixture of nature and nurture is likely at work here. I don’t know the answers, because I’m not a neuroscientist (no, really — I’m not — though they do often call me “Dr. McDreamy.”  (“Actually, they call you Dr. McDreaming of a ham sandwich” —  The Couch)

But setting aside a poor methodology, there’s still a problem with how the results of this study might fit with the larger world. If this study is accurately tracking the innate — let’s even call them “genetic” for fun — differences between liberals and conservatives, then wouldn’t we expect these numbers to hold (roughly) constant — like eye color or left-handedness — over generations and across regions of the country or the world?

And what are the implications of that? Is socialist Sweden’s population saturated with liberal-brains? Are other ethnicities simply genetically “conservative” — i.e. opposed to change — and that’s why they have the problems they do? And what about Canada? They’re very liberal up there, but genetically or neurologically, are they really that distinguishable from Americans?

In Russia for a very long time, “conservatives” wanted to conserve the Soviet system which made them the anti-matter universe versions of American conservatives. Surely the substance of what people want to conserve matters, if we are to take these studies remotely seriously.

Studies of this sort have a long pedigree, going back to the execrable Authoritarian Personality, and they all have a similar flaw. They stack the definitional deck in their favor.

Yes, sure, there’s probably some neurological factor involved in why some people resist change ’more than others. But, absent the relevant qualifiers, love of change is not “liberal” any more than being for the status quo is “conservative.” For example, liberals from Jonathan Chait to Nancy Pelosi have a white-knuckled grip on the welfare state created by FDR and LBJ — in other words they’re conservative about the liberal status quo. Meanwhile, so-called paleoconservatives are quite radical in their agendas. Think about it: There are cranky, risk-averse people at any number of liberal institutions and risk-loving rightwingers at conservative institutions. Have you never met an inflexible leftwing bureaucrat? Have you never hung out with a partying, devil-may-care Republican?

I have. Then I smashed him with a rock and buried him in a shallow grave for embracing too much ambiguity! I kid, I kid.

The bottom line is this: there are Marxists who haven’t embraced a new idea in 40 years, and there are conservatives who want to tear down the welfare state, imposing radical and sweeping changes on society and allowing the creative destruction of the market place to run amok (at least that’s what liberals keep telling me). Which are conservatives and which are liberals? The idea that liberals-qua-liberals are comfortable with ambiguity begs the question: Ambiguity about what? Walk around Madison, Berkeley, or Burlington some time, explaining very rationally that the evidence on global warming is ambiguous. As you’re wiping the spittle spewed from their outbursts off your cheek, take a moment to savor the liberals’ comfort with ambiguity. 


And what about the millions of people — some famous, most not — who have switched sides? What of the hordes of New Deal Democrats who became Reagan Republicans, starting with Reagan himself? What about the Michael Linds, David Brocks, and John Deans? What are we to make of the 9/11 converts to conservatism? Did these people metaphorically rip out their brain wiring like an angry man pulling off the sensors from his heart monitor? Was Kevin Phillips like Neo in the Matrix, awakened to the true reality, such that he could pull out the rightwing brain tubing from the conservative mainframe?

A good indication of why whatever merit this study has, is ensconced in a huge, steaming pile of b.s. — and I don’t mean “biased science”– is this passage from the LAT:

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a “flip-flopper” for changing his mind about the conflict.

First note how Bush’s “single-minded commitment” is an objective fact while Kerry’s flip-floppery is merely a “perception.” More important, does this mean that liberals who stick to their guns are conservatives? Do conservatives who change course (as Bush has, in fact done) have liberal brains? Is this really a conclusion we’re willing to draw from a bunch of kids tapping at Ms and Ws on a keyboard? Please. The study may measure something, but the interpretation of the study is pure flapdoodle.

If there is a small-c conservative personality type — and I believe there is — I don’t see much evidence that it lines up neatly with a set political agenda or party. Moreover, I think it is astounding that so many people are eager to give credit to one of the most illiberal assertions science has made in a long while. Conservatives’ ideas aren’t wrong, their brains are! So much for liberals claiming that they are the descendents of the age of reason. So much for conservatives believing that ideas have consequences.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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