Friday, December 31, 2010

Being Liberal Or Conservative - Not A Choice ?

It has always been assumed that being either a liberal or a conservative was a political choice (and perhaps a moral or ethical choice) made by each individual, and influenced by our parents, our environment and our experiences.   This just seemed to be a common sense assumption.   But a recent study shows this may not be true at all.

Recent studies at University College London in England show that the brains of conservatives and liberals have significant differences.   They studied the brains of some members of parliament and a number of students.   Those who were conservative had brains with larger amygdalas -- an area of the brain associated with anxiety and emotions.   The liberals had a larger anterior cingulate -- an area of the brain associated with courage and look on the bright side.  

If this is true, and the correlations fit in every case, then it is possible that our political views are not really a choice -- but that our brains are "hard-wired" to make us either conservative or liberal.   That would mean it was futile to try and convert a conservative or liberal to the other way of thinking -- not something most of us political junkies (on either side) would like to believe.

The flaw in the study is that it was only done on adults.   Therefore it can't be certain that the brain determined the political belief.   It may be that the political belief determined the brain development.   The only way to know for sure which it is would be to examine the brains of a large number of children and then wait to see which political belief they embraced after becoming adults -- something that would takes years to determine.

The lead researcher (Professor Geraint Rees) said,   "We were very surprised to find that there was an area of the brain that we could predict political attitude.   It is very surprising because it does suggest there is something about political attitude that is encoded in brain structure through our experience or that there is something in our brain structure that determines or results in political attitude."

Personally, I hope this is not true.   I prefer to think of political beliefs as a choice -- as a decision that can be changed with facts and reasoning.   But I did find the study to be interesting.


  1. I wonder if you've seen anything about this recent study that also tries to attribute biological sources to political persuasion. There's a link within this link that provides a few more details on the study.

    About four and a half years ago, I tried to link political mindset to cognitive styles - something I studied in depth during my graduate school days. My premise was (and still is) that conservatives tend to be field independent, whereas liberals are generally more field dependent.

    Here's a link to my post on the topic.

    As you can see, I still haven't stopped offering the conservative point of view in liberal/progressive venues. But I'm more realistic about my ability to persuade anyone on the Left. As far as I'm concerned, we're wired differently.

  2. This study has been all over the internet for years, and apparently does take children and follow them for decades.

    How To Spot a Baby Conservative

    Do whiny children tend to grow up rigid and traditional while confident, resilient, self-reliant kids grow into liberals?

    Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

    At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

    The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding.

    But the new results are worth a look. In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings รข€” the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.

    A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

    The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

    Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.

    In a society that values self-confidence and out-goingness, it's a mostly flattering picture for liberals. It also runs contrary to the American stereotype of wimpy liberals and strong conservatives.

    Of course, if you're studying the psychology of politics, you shouldn't be surprised to get a political reaction. Similar work by John T. Jost of Stanford and colleagues in 2003 drew a political backlash. The researchers reviewed 44 years worth of studies into the psychology of conservatism, and concluded that people who are dogmatic, fearful, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, and who crave order and structure are more likely to gravitate to conservatism. Critics branded it the "conservatives are crazy" study and accused the authors of a political bias.


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