Are liberals and conservatives differently wired? It would seem so. When brain MRIs were done on 90 young adults from University College London, it was found that self-described liberals tended to have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas self-described conservatives tended to have a larger right amygdala. These results were replicated in a second sample of young adults (Kanai et al., 2011).
The amygdala is used to recognize fearful facial expressions, whereas the anterior cingulate cortex serves to monitor uncertainty and conflict (Adolphs et al., 1995; Botvinick et al., 1999; Critchley et al., 2001; Kennerley et al., 2006). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings were changed somewhat in the popular press. “Conservatives Big on Fear, Brain Study Finds,” ran a headline in Psychology Today. The same article assured its readers that the anterior cingulate cortex “helps people cope with complexity” (Barber, 2011).
A study on 82 young American adults came to a similar conclusion. Republicans showed more activity in the right amygdala, and Democrats more activity in the left insula. Unlike the English study, the anterior cingulate cortex didn’t differ between the two groups (Schreiber et al., 2013).
It would seem, then, that conservatives and liberals are neurologically different. Perhaps certain political beliefs will alter your mental makeup. Or perhaps your mental makeup will lead you to certain political beliefs. But how can that be when conservatism and liberalism have changed so much in recent times, not only ideologically but also electorate-wise? A century ago, English “conservatives” came from the upper class, the middle class, and outlying rural areas. Today, Britain’s leading “conservative” party, the UKIP, is drawing more and more of its members from the urban working class—the sort of folks who routinely voted Labour not so long ago. Similar changes have taken place in the U.S. Until the 1950s, white southerners were overwhelmingly Democrats. Now, they’re overwhelmingly Republicans.
Of course, the above studies are only a few years old. When we use terms like “conservative” and “liberal” we refer to what they mean today. Increasingly, both terms have an implicitly ethnic meaning. The UKIP is becoming the native British party, in opposition to a growing Afro-Asian population that votes en bloc for Labour. Meanwhile, the Republicans are becoming the party of White Americans, particularly old-stock ones, in opposition to a Democrat coalition of African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, plus a dwindling core of ethnic whites.
So are these brain differences really ethnic differences? Neither study touches the question. The English study assures us that the participants were homogeneous:
We deliberately used a homogenous sample of the UCL student population to minimize differences in social and educational environment. The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency reports that 21.1% of UCL students come from a working-class background. This rate is relatively low compared to the national average of 34.8%. This suggests that the UCL students from which we recruited our participants disproportionately have a middle-class to upper-class background. (Kanai et al., 2011)
Yes, the students were largely middle-class, but how did they break down ethnically? Wikipedia provides a partial answer:
In 2013/14, 12,330 UCL students were from outside the UK (43% of the total number of students in that year), of whom 5,504 were from Asia, 3,679 from the European Union ex. the United Kingdom, 1,195 from North America, 516 from the Middle East, 398 from Africa, 254 from Central and South America, and 166 from Australasia(University College London, 2014)
These figures were for citizenship only. We should remember that many of the UK students would have been of non-European origin.
We know more about the participants in the American study. They came from the University of California, San Diego, whose student body at the time was 44% Asian, 26% Caucasian, 10% Mexican American, 10% unknown, 4% Filipino, 3% Latino/Other Spanish, and 2% African American (Anon, 2010). This ethnic breakdown mirrors the party breakdown of the participants: 60 Democrats (72.5%) and 22 Republicans (27.5%).
Affective empathy and ethnicity
In my last post, I cited a study showing that the amygdala is larger in extraordinary altruists—people who have donated one of their kidneys to a stranger. In that study, we were told that a larger amygdala is associated with greater responsiveness to fearful facial expressions, i.e., a greater willingness to help people in distress. Conversely, psychopaths have a smaller amygdala and are less responsive to fearful faces (Marsh et al., 2014).
Hmm … That’s a tad different from the spin in Psychology Today. Are liberals the ones who don’t care about others? Are they … psychopaths?
It would be more accurate to say that “liberals” come from populations whose capacity for affective empathy is lower on average and who tend to view any stranger as a potential enemy. That’s most people in this world, and that’s how most of the world works. I suspect the greater ability to monitor uncertainty and conflict reflects adaptation to an environment that has long been socially fragmented into clans, castes, religions, etc. This may explain why a larger anterior cingulate cortex correlated with “liberalism” in the British study (high proportion of South Asian students) but not in the American study (high proportion of East Asian students).
As for “conservatives,” they largely come from Northwest Europe, where a greater capacity for affective empathy seems to reflect an environment of relatively high individualism, relatively weak kinship, and relatively frequent interactions with nonkin. This environment has prevailed west of the Hajnal Line since at least the 12th century, as shown by the longstanding characteristics of the Western European Marriage Pattern: late age of marriage for both sexes; high rate of celibacy; strong tendency of children to form new households; and high circulation of non-kin among families. This zone of weaker kinship, with greater reliance on internal means of behavior control, may also explain why Northwest Europeans are more predisposed to guilt than to shame, whereas the reverse is generally the case elsewhere in the world (Frost, 2014).
All of this may sound counterintuitive. Doesn’t the political left currently stand for autonomy theory and individualism? Doesn’t it reject traditional values like kinship? In theory it does. The reality is a bit different, though. When Muslims vote Labour, it’s not because they want gay marriage and teaching of gender theory in the schools. They expect something else.
The same goes for the political right. When former Labourites vote UKIP, it’s not because they want lower taxes for the rich and offshoring of manufacturing jobs. They expect something else. Are they being delusional? Perhaps. But, then, are the Muslims being delusional?
Perhaps neither group is. Perhaps both understand what politics is really about.
Adolphs, R., D. Tranel, H. Damasio, and A.R. Damasio. (1995). Fear and the human amygdala, The Journal of Neuroscience, 15, 5879-5891.
Anon (2010). Racial breakdown of the largest California public colleges, The Huffington Post, May 4
Barber, N. (2011). Conservatives big on fear, study finds, Psychology Today, April 19
Botvinick, M., Nystrom, L.E., Fissell, K., Carter, C.S., and Cohen, J.D. (1999). Conflict monitoring versus selection-for-action in anterior cingulate cortex, Nature, 402, 179-181.
Critchley, H.D., Mathias, C.J., and Dolan, R.J. (2001). Neural activity in the human brain relating to uncertainty and arousal during anticipation, Neuron, 29, 537-545.
Frost, P. (2014). We are not equally empathic, Evo and Proud, November 15
Kanai, R., T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults,Current Biology, 21, 677 – 680.
Kennerley, S.W., Walton, M.E., Behrens, T.E., Buckley, M.J., and Rushworth, M.F. (2006). Optimal decision making and the anterior cingulate cortex. Nat. Neurosci. 9, 940-947.
Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041.
Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A.N., Dawes, C.T., Flagan, T., et al. (2013). Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 8(2): e52970.
University College London. (2014). Wikipedia