+ Liberal? Conservative? Depends on Your Brain (Maybe)

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Scientists at New York University and UCLA have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of the way their brains are wired.

Well, maybe.

A study published in the journal “Nature Neuroscience” used a simple experiment to show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

In previous studies, conservatives have been shown to be more structured and persistent in their judgements, whereas liberals are more open to new experiences.  This new study found those traits are not just confined to political situations, but also influence everyday decisions.

Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA neurobiologist not involved in the study, says the results show “there are two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style.”

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from “very liberal” to “very conservative.”  Scientists instructed them to tap a keyboard when an “M” appeared on a computer monitor, but to refrain from pressing the keyboard when they saw a “W.”

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

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in their anterior cingulate cortex.  This is the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing a 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.”

Philip Tetlock, of UCLA, said he would be cautious about drawing conclusions from such neurological studies.  Using that kind of evidence, he said,”it’s hard to distinguish between someone who’s rigid and someone who’s principled.”

But Mark Pollock, associate professor of communication at Loyola University in Chicago, said the study “provides scientific evidence for conclusions people have reached previously” while studying political rhetoric.

For example, he said, “A higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity is typical of people who are liberal.  That’s not a surprise.  It does, however, suggest there may be a hereditary and neurological basis for that.  It might also suggest there’s less likelihood of people shifting their political ideology if it’s hard-wired in there.”

Pollock saw another benefit to the findings: if political attitudes are tied to neurobiology, it would make bashing conservatives — or liberals — pointless.  Perhaps they are not making a choice.  Perhaps it’s how they’re built. 

sole source: Kansas City Star online article on 9/9/07, by Denise Gellene of the LA Times.

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