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Tilting at Windmills

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September 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NEWS FLASH....Liberals and conservatives think differently. Now proven by neuroscience!

Kevin Drum 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W.

So when Conservatives see a DUBYA they screw up?

Apparently!
Bwah.

Posted by: Ya Know.... on September 10, 2007 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

It's interesting that the conservative brain was described as "more structured and persistent in their judgments" which is a polite way of saying they didn't deal as well with the unexpected.

Posted by: battlepanda on September 10, 2007 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

i.e. they don't think, they react.

I wonder if there's a difference between folks who describe themselves as "conservative" vs. those who describe themselves as "a Conservative". There's a difference, in my experience.

Posted by: Will on September 10, 2007 at 1:02 AM | PERMALINK

Brilliant! They're more likely to react in a knee jerk fashion and are frequently unable to recognize the difference between up and down.

Posted by: B on September 10, 2007 at 1:28 AM | PERMALINK

"more structured and persistent in their judgments"
"i.e. they don't think, they react."
Sounds like conservatives tend to be black/white thinkers and are reflexive in their responses. Maybe good for defending the hive in a real time attack, but not so good strategically.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 10, 2007 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

Conservatives think?

Daily the world offers surprising new information.

Posted by: clio on September 10, 2007 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK

Garbage experiment typical of biased researchers looking to insult rather than learn.

I would interpret the data to mean that liberals have better reflexes typical of lower species enabling them to react faster than thinking people. Or one could surmise that numbers weren't used because liberals aren't smart enough to do math.

Posted by: Luther on September 10, 2007 at 2:22 AM | PERMALINK

Robert Altermeyer more or less anticipated this in his work on the Authoritarian Personality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authoritarian_personality

http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 3:03 AM | PERMALINK

What an absolutely stupid piece of research. Take two highly unstable political definitions, and justify the gross and innane importance placed on them by defining them as the subjects of study. I am absolutely certain the test subject selection process predetermined the result.

Niether liberal or conservative stance on anything in the present circumstances, is worthy of serious consideration. Why do we persist in cramping ourselves and others into these absurd abstractions?

Posted by: exclab on September 10, 2007 at 3:12 AM | PERMALINK

I don't quite buy into this as neuroscience, but given that I haven't encountered a big-C Conservative who wasn't 100% predictable, I'll buy that dedicated right wingers can't cope with unfamiliar ideas.

Posted by: Will on September 10, 2007 at 3:23 AM | PERMALINK

Battlepanda

You will note that the characteristics of a conservative would serve much better in many professions: police officer, military soldier etc. Also eg on a construction site (foreman).

Anything where you need reliability, consistency, unhesitating action.

'more structured and persistent in their judgements' means they don't waste time constantly revisiting issues.

If you think of the tendency of, say, liberals to just *talk* about things, rather than act, the endless equivocation of the Clinton Administration, from the man on down, you can see the issue, and what drives conservatives nuts, at an emotional level, about liberals.

Liberals didn't cover themselves in glory over Vietnam. All that thinking and analysis didn't produce the right answer.

What the research cited doesn't consider is chain of causation:

conservative attitudes => conservative mental pattern

or

conservative mental pattern => conservative political attitudes

ie which came first, the chicken, or the egg?

It's certainly the case that you are more likely to share the political views of your identical twin brother (far more likely) than you are those of your adoptive parents.

It does, however, explain why more than 50% of Fox News viewers think WMD and evidence of Al Quaida links to Saddam, were found in Iraq vs. less than 17% of NPR listeners. Long ago, they (and Dick Cheney) made up their mind about Iraq, they don't see the liberal need to constantly revisit it.

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 3:44 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry, I guess I never met any liberals or conservatives. I don't really have any friends who fit this model. Soldiers, policemen, teachers - none of them fit.

Posted by: exclab on September 10, 2007 at 4:19 AM | PERMALINK

Like others, I'm highly dubious of studies such as this.

I'm not a tabula rasa guy but questioning assumptions, the ability to revisit issues is something that can be learned... I've seen it.

a personal tragedy... a self-truth that can't be denied... moving between cultures...

Even Conservatives have to revisit issues when they can no longer be ignored. I think a great example of this is George Wallace.

Most of us, once we see how dependent we are on frames of understanding cease to accept the frames as sacrosanct...

Of course you do have David Horowitz's who can go from Marxism to GOPism with nary a blink. This is the true authoritarian mind.

Posted by: snicker-snack on September 10, 2007 at 4:30 AM | PERMALINK

snicker-snack

Easier for a David Horowitz (Barbara Amiel and many of the other neocons are also good examples-- Amiel grew up a British communist) to go from one extreme to another than for a less extreme conservative to become a liberal. It's the extremeness that defines their world view, rather than the polarity per se.

Race is one of those lightswitch issues. Many Afrikaans thought ending apartheid would be, literally, immoral and a violation of God's Will. Yet enough of them switched sides on the issue to make it possible. Conversely I am regularly astounded how racial stereotypes are absolutely embedded in people I would otherwise consider to be totally normal and upstanding (and, less common now, anti-Catholic stereotypes and anti-semitic ones).

Indeed people can learn to revisit issues. I think this is what college education and indeed postgraduate education in particular is all about, and studies do show that those with postgraduate degrees are more liberal than the populace as a whole. There is a mental mindset of questioning everything that the academe, at its best (which is not always adhered to), can inculcate.

Probably that brain function changes with your education process. The brain is not a static entity, even into old age.

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 4:59 AM | PERMALINK


valurthinker...good points....

as kevin noted in the poll...

...one-third of Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in 9/11....

its not a coincidence that its roughly the same percentage that approve of bush's job performance..

Posted by: mr. irony on September 10, 2007 at 5:49 AM | PERMALINK

I love this study! So simple, so very, very simple, and yet it explains so much. It's an elegant piece of work.

At a neurological level, some people are better able to suppress a habitual response ("press M!!! press M!!!") when they detect a change in a stimulus ("yipes, now it's a...W!" Press W!!! Press W!!!.) Interestingly, those people are also more likely to identify as liberal. This activity requires two things--one, detecting the stimulus change, and two, suppressing ones habitual response in order to make the correct response. The way I interpret the study, the researcher's design does not allow one to claim that conservatives don't detect stimulus change, just that they are less likely to suppress their habitual response.

In the first 14 responses I see a common interpretative error emerging--that of thinking categorically about probability data. I apologise if I am pointing out the obvious, but most psychological phenomena are found along a normal distribution, with some people at the extremes, most people in the middle. That is, this study has found that conservatives are LESS LIKELY than liberals to suppress their M habit, not that conservatives NEVER detect stimulus change and NEVER suppress habitual responses and liberals ALWAYS do. George Bush and his hard-core 16% are just a standard deviation out at the extreme. They can learn and adapt, they are just slower and less likely to do so. Actually, GWB is probably about six standard deviations out there.... George Bush will respond M, M, M, M, M, M, M, M, M, M even if the correct response to the stimulus is W, I, R, A Q, D, E, A, D.

The article goes too far when it concludes that liberals " tolerate ambiguity and conflict better." Liberals may be more comfortable with ambiguity and conflict, but I don't think this study shows this. All this study is saying is that people who identify as liberal have brains that are more likely to correctly suppress habitual responses in order to respond to perceived changes in the environment. That has to do with adaptation and flexibility of response, not tolerance for ambiguity and conflict.

In terms of which is "preferable"*sigh*it seems to me that both are essential in a well-functioning society. Sometimes human societies need to be open to new experiences and new ways of responding: creativity, adaptation, and vision, not to mention accurately calling a W a W and an M an M. Sometimes, society needs stability, traditions, consistency, a sure foundation, and sometimes it doesn't matter if one calls a W an M. Change for change's sake can be just as destructive to the well-being of society as resisting change when change is overdue.

We really should be learning from one another rather than beating each other up, but I suspect that is my liberal brain talking.


Posted by: PTate in FR on September 10, 2007 at 7:19 AM | PERMALINK

The brain is not a static entity, even into old age.

Absolutely.

Indeed people can learn to revisit issues. I think this is what college education and indeed postgraduate education in particular is all about

and could be said too of the arts.

Posted by: snicker-snack on September 10, 2007 at 7:24 AM | PERMALINK

PTate in FR has it right. Reality is not so simple as this test, sometimes what appears to be an M is in fact the same old W. Liberals will see a new M but conservatives will suspect the same old W. Which response is correct in any particular situation depends on the circumstances. The question is does a society recognize its situation and pick an appropriate response. Best to evaluate each situation with both types of thinkers.

Posted by: chowderhead on September 10, 2007 at 7:55 AM | PERMALINK

Reality is not so simple as this test

MMMMMMMMMWMMWMMWWMMMMMWMMMM

The NSA needs to make sure they have some liberals in their code breaking department. There are a lot of messages that AQ could send undetected.

----------------------------

As for chowderhead's comment I figure he's right and there are better questions for testing people's grip on reality:

1) Do Republicans have stronger moral values?
2) Are Republicans the party of small government?
3) Is global warming real?
4) Did Saddam have WMD?
5) Did Saddam's intelligence apparatus assist the terrorists on 9-11?
6) Has the US ever assisted a military coup in a democratic country?
7) Has the US military ever committed an atrocity?
8) Is a healthy forest a clearcut forest?
9) Will drilling in ANWR make us energy independent?

-----------------------

I wonder where Libertarians fall on the curve.

Posted by: B on September 10, 2007 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

It has been my observation and experience that often the more advanced education a person has the potential for them to have liberal views exists. One wonders if this is because the more one exercises the brain to think critically the more nuances are perceived on issues. Of course, this is not hard and fast! It seems that the environment and experiences of family and financial means also impact the positions we take as we mature. So one might conclude that it isn't as simple as slapping a label on someone because of their views on particular matters. I think it's much more complicated. But, I prefer to believe that liberals THINK CRITICALLY and examine all aspects of issues and those who willingly allow themselves to be labeled conservative are happiest when they can find someone to tell them HOW TO THINK! You know, someone like Ronald Reagan (ugh)...

Posted by: Dancer on September 10, 2007 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

When you have to choose between the lesser of several evils, like with immigration, foreign policy, etc., conservative thinking falls apart.

Conservatives don't deal well with shades of gray. That's why they like the Bible so much.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on September 10, 2007 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

I liked the part where he talked about "The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information..." Sounds like Bush to me.

But extrapolating social policy thoughts from the ability to sense an M instead of a W may be a little tenuous.

Posted by: anandine on September 10, 2007 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

1) Yes
2) Yes
3) No
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) No
7) No
8) Yes
9) Yes

Okay, B. I'm now ready for the tougher questions.

Posted by: Al on September 10, 2007 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter:

"It's not true that all conservatives are stupid. It is true that most stupid people are conservative" -- Molly Ivins (RIP)

Posted by: RL on September 10, 2007 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

@exclab

What an absolutely stupid piece of research. Take two highly unstable political definitions, and justify the gross and innane importance placed on them by defining them as the subjects of study.

You're right -- one wouldn't expect a strong result from such a stupid experiment for all the reasons you stated. Which just makes it more intriguing that there was a clear difference between the two groups.

I am absolutely certain the test subject selection process predetermined the result.

Care to elaborate how? It's UCLA. They know how to control for confounding factors, right.

From your comments I get the vibe that you dislike the research because you perceive it as being reductionist. Perhaps it is, but being reductionist and seeing patterns in seemingly simpler patterns in complex things is how progress gets made in science.

@Valuethinker.

There's a lot of things that this study isn't. What it is is an interesting piece of the puzzle, I think.

I'm sorry if my first comment was too much of a 'dig'. I think learning more about how ourselves is always good. Liberals clearly did better at this game. Perhaps there will be other games where conservatives do better. That's all good. As long as the results of these experiments are repeatable, they're all adding to the sum of knowledge about how we work.

Posted by: battlepanda on September 10, 2007 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

Along these lines, conservatives love to tell liberals "You're not listening" or "What you fail to understanding is . . ." or "You're out of touch with reality," when what they really mean is "Stop disagreeing with me."

When you still disagree with them they go into their "persecuted conservative Christian minority" whine & how they are the only Republicans in their neighborhood upholding true American values. They love the image of themselves as the last honorable people left in America, the only ones worthy to be recognized as supporting our troops & making important policy decisions.

It's like they stopped maturing in junior high school.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on September 10, 2007 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

In the AFP story featured by Yahoo, Marlowe Hood writes:

...one could interpret the results to mean that liberals are nimble-minded and conservatives rigid and stubborn. Or one could, with equal justice, conclude that wishy-washy liberals don't stick to their guns, while conservatives and steadfast and loyal.

The study evaluated the willingness to change thinking when events required it. Marlowe calls those who refuse to do so "steadfast."

How loyal of you, Marlowe.

Posted by: chance on September 10, 2007 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

I think the study is pretty good. I think the objections in the comments, such as Luther's at 2:22 AM, are irrelevant to the study or reflect a misunderstanding of what was being tested. I think the way people can start to doubt it is because there's such a broad range of experience with liberals/conservatives, for example, claiming different opinions on different issues- it does seem, in people's anecdotal experience, that a lot of people end up liberal or conservative so easily. But that is just because life and situations are so complicated. The very simple difference in the mechanism through which liberals and conservatives see all those complex details could very easily explain how liberals and conservatives tend to bunch together in their assessments on issues, instead of society being composed of individuals who have a more random set of opinions on contemporary political issues. It seems too complicated to be effected by this brain mechanism, but when you think about it, it's really not. Also the remarks about certain professions being better suited to a conservative aren't substantiated by the commenters, they're just single 8-word sentence declarations.

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

Go to the park and feed the ducks. The group of ducks will form a (double) bell shape. One bold duck at the front risking getting grabbed and killed with a trail of cautious ducks at the back not getting any food and risking going hungry. Most ducks will be in the middle balancing risk and reward. If the person feeding the ducks is just feeding the ducks then being bold is best, if the person feeding the ducks is looking for a duck to roast the bolds ducks strategy is not a smart one. Most ducks take a middle course. What about Conrad's Typhoon? Is Captain MacWhirr a conservative? His lack of imagination is a better trait then first mate Jukes at the height of the storm. Or consider the Trojan horse. A conservative may believe he is still under attack. A liberal may see a new situation, a gift. As to an education, what about the lesson of Long Term Capital? A group of Nobel prize winning scholars? Diversity of opinions and discussion is needed.

Posted by: chowderhead on September 10, 2007 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

I wrote:

it does seem, in people's anecdotal experience, that a lot of people end up liberal or conservative so easily.

Oops-- this should be, "it doesn't seem"

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

To take what pj in jesusland said and rephrase it in terms of this study : "Along these lines, conservatives love to tell liberals "You're not listening" or "What you fail to understanding is . . ." or "You're out of touch with reality," ... when what is really happening is that conservatives are sticking to their habitual patterns of response long after "reality" has changed. They continue to act as if it were "M"s long after the "W"s have taken over and their only recourse is denial and suppression.

It is a wonder the conservative line has survived this long, really. One would think, evolutionarily, that they would have died out long ago, being less able to adapt to new environments, but perhaps they use a different survival strategy. First, they concentrate their energy on consolidating wealth and power. Second, in periods of necessary change, as the liberals risk their necks figuring out that change is necessary, the conservatives scream bloody murder and do everything they can to stop the liberals, including using their power to kill the liberals if necessary. Then, when liberals have worked out the best adaptation and start gaining a competitive advantage, the conservatives co-opt whatever the liberals have done--while continuing to suppress the liberals.

We could call this a "brutality and freeloading" strategy, but the ones who survive have evolved a good sense of timing--gaining all the benefits without having to accept any of the risks.

Posted by: PTate in FR on September 10, 2007 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

A good anecdote from art about this difference is the penultimate scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket. While the marines are on patrol in a destroyed piece of a Vietnam city, they come under attack by a sniper. They duck for cover, but the sniper keeps shooting the marines who have been caught in the open to hobble them, and then to wound them, but not to kill. The dumb marine, Animal Mother, wants to rush out from behind cover again and again to save the caught marines. The nuanced, thinking marine, Joker, stays behind cover. Every marine who dashes out into the open to save the marines who are caught there suffers the same fate.

The marines ultimately catch up with the sniper by throwing a smoke grenade / sneaking around out from behind cover by a non-obvious route / having artillery attack the sniper post first (I can't remember which). When they get up to the post in a building, they discover, in the ultimate mind-fuck to a conservative, the sniper was a woman. A conservative probably tends to think that a woman couldn't beat a man who wants to rush to do the same stupid thing over and over again; that women must not have trigger fingers, or something.

The story demonstrates how the reflexive mind of the conservative dictates unwise courses of action.

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

While a number of commenters seem to think the test was a silly one, I actually find it pretty interesting, though I'd like to see the actual numbers backing up the claims.

Apriori, why would one expect that the ability to recognize letters flexibly might correlate to political views? It's pretty striking that it does, in fact, do so, precisely because of the apparent distance in mechanisms between the two things being correlated. It really does suggest that there's a crucial difference in cognitive styles, and perhaps even organic wiring, that underlies political differences.

And of course it would in any case be only a correlation, admitting of the sorts of exceptions people have noted.

Posted by: frankly0 on September 10, 2007 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

This story is quintessential SCLM. Instead of saying, "liberals do better on test than Conservatives," or "study finds liberals smarter," the author equivocates. Those plucky steadfast conservatives!! Punching their keyboards even when they aren't supposed to!!

"Liberals didn't cover themselves in glory over Vietnam. All that thinking and analysis didn't produce the right answer."

There's a Conservative for you. The "right answer" was to not invade and occupy Vietnam. Liberals were ignored, just as they were before the Iraq Occupation, but they had the "right answer."


"You will note that the characteristics of a conservative would serve much better in many professions: police officer, military soldier"

No, that's only true if every suspect is guilty, or every person near the battlefield is an enemy. In the real world, policemen who "press the keyboard" when they aren't supposed to ruin innocent peoples' lives. Soliders who "press the keyboard" when they aren't supposed to kill innocent people, and start unnecessary wars. What would have happened if GW Bush were President during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Would we even be here to discuss it?


Posted by: Father Figure on September 10, 2007 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

This may explain why Larry Craig doesn't see himself as being gay even though he does gay "stuff." His mind just doesn't let him see it.
I suppose it would be the same for all the conservatives who cheat on their wives with prostitutes and all the conservative pedofiles who abuse boys and girls. Their minds just don't let them see all the wrong that they are doing.
Gee, does this make me feel better about all these conservative assholes. No not really.

Posted by: Henk on September 10, 2007 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

"...George Bush and his hard-core 16% are just a standard deviation out at the extreme. They can learn and adapt, they are just slower and less likely to do so..."
Posted by: PTate in FR on September 10, 2007 at 7:19 AM

I know somebody that WAS a loyal Bush supporter and isn't any longer. She now thinks that he's *really* stupid, not just inarticulate. But, she thinks that because she believes *Lou Dobbs thinks that* now.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 10, 2007 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Short answer to this experiment: Liberals make fewer errors and are less prone to stereotypical stupidity than conservatives.

If nothing changes, conservatives react well to the constant, unchanging situation. Liberals are always looking for change, and do badly then.

Liberal do well when things change.

In this world, things change frequently.

Final conclusion: Conservatives are incompetents with changing situations. The world is defined as a changing situation. Thus, by science, conservatives are unable to do anything in the world except fuck it up.

Posted by: POed Lib on September 10, 2007 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

If nothing changes, conservatives react well to the constant, unchanging situation. Liberals are always looking for change, and do badly then.

Well, actually, at least as the experiment is reported in the article, not even this would seem to be true. In fact, liberals were not more likely to make mistakes about the more frequent letter; they were every bit as good as the conservatives.

Posted by: frankly0 on September 10, 2007 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

What the research cited doesn't consider is chain of causation:

conservative attitudes => conservative mental pattern
or
conservative mental pattern => conservative political attitudes

ie which came first, the chicken, or the egg?
Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 3:44 AM
------------
Interesting-good point. Could the results of the experiment be significantly changed by different training (pre-conditioning)? Take a group of the overly reflexive types and give them special training that should help reduce it, and then take a group of the less reflexive types and give them special training that tends to reinforce reflexiveness. Compare the two groups before and after. Would there be a signfiicant difference before and after? Then do PET scans before and after the training as well. Nature vs. nurture. I had an English prof that told me that "your job deforms your personality". I'd like to see how right or wrong that might be.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 10, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

I wrote:

I think the study is pretty good. I think the objections in the comments, such as Luther's at 2:22 AM, are irrelevant to the study or reflect a misunderstanding of what was being tested.

For example, Luther said that the results could be explained by liberals having a better part of the brain that controlled reaction time. But if more accurate results would come only from having better reaction time, that would suggest test subject had limited time to respond, which they didn't. Conservatives hit the wrong button because they didn't take the time to think, not because the liberals reacted quicker. If anything, what the test says in relation to reaction time is that liberals think more quickly.

I'm sure conservatives will react to the news of this study as they react to everything: like the pesky little cousin or family-friend always invited to the family reunion. When you jump in the pool, it takes this kid about 5 seconds to wade up behind you, start punching you in the kidneys, and start yelling "I'm better than you! I'm stronger than you!" Then you turn the kid upside-down and dunk his head in the water. After that, it takes about 1 second for him to stand up and start punching you again. And so on. This kid will keep punching you, even if he has to spend his whole say at the pool being dunked upside down in the water over and over again, until he finally complains to his mom when it's time to go, "But s/he wouldn't stop dunking me!"

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

conservative attitudes => conservative mental pattern
or
conservative mental pattern => conservative political attitudes

What strikes me most about the experiment is that the test imposed has absolutely no value component. I'd expect that conservatives might be more rigid in applications of values to a variety of morally loaded situations. But it really is remarkable that this rigidity might extend to the most pedestrian of purely cognitive activities.

Posted by: frankly0 on September 10, 2007 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

It starts early, giving credence to a genetic component. There was a study recently that Andrew Sulllivan linked to. They studied kids in preschool and then off and on for 20 years. "As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservatives at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3."

Posted by: anandine on September 10, 2007 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Frankly0 wrote:

It's pretty striking that it does, in fact, do so, precisely because of the apparent distance in mechanisms between the two things being correlated.

The test tested activity in an area of the brain that generically controls a wait-and-think function or a react function, despite the situation. It makes you consider a situation, whatever it is, whenever you see it, or just prejudge that they're all the same and keep answering it the same way. The brain doesn't have a mechanism that says, "This question is about Ms and Ws and not about politics, so we should make a lot of assumptions here while we shouldn't about politics" (or vice versa). So it's not the case that very different functions were being tested; it's the same function. Hence the correlation in the results with self-identitfication as liberal or conservative.

What the test shows is that liberals are born with different brains and liberals' brains work better.

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

This reminds me of a cartoon I saw right after 9/11. There was a couple in an apartment with giant cockroaches all over the walls and ceilings. The caption read: "Don't you think we should *talk* to them?". Somehow that cartoon relates to some of these ideas with respect to categorical thinking.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 10, 2007 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Father Figure

You've misread my political ideology totally.

On Vietnam, liberals were in power. Arguably the sort of liberals who are now neoconservatives, but liberals dominated the White House. The Secretary of Defence was a prominent liberal.

Later on there was widespread 'liberal' opposition to the war in Vietnam, but not in the early-mid 60s.

I urge you to read David Kaiser's blog

http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/

about the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. He is a professional historian (and another liberal) and his analysis is biting (more about Nixon and Vietnam than Kennedy and Johnson). But it does set the tone and scene.

On police officers and military officers, I have enough conservative friends who are one or the other (or both) to see where they are coming from. To make big bureaucracies 'on the sharp end' against some very, very bad people out there (you remember those folks on 9-11?) you need to be able to 'cut to the chase'. The military is not a debating shop. Neither is an effective counter terrorist organisation.

Oddly at the very highest levels, you *do* need that kind of intense debate, which has been completely lacking in this NSC and Administration ie a genuine conceptual debate about what US strategy should be. Hence invading Iraq to avenge 9-11, which defines stupid irrationality in foreign policy.

But to execute that strategy, what you cannot do is equivocate once committed. Nor can you lead people into dangerous situations, where some of them will undoubtedly die, without a degree of (sometimes inappropriate) certainty about your cause and your chosen methods.

Business is a bit like this too. THe companies which have been paralysed by overly smart analysis, and a failure to execute, are legion. The most successful companies often pursue quite elementary strategies, but with a slightly irrational and almost religious 120% zeal.

Worth reading Norman Davies 'No Easy Victory' about WWII. He makes the point that WWII was, by any measure, about one totalitarian dictatorship (Hitler's Germany) being destroyed by another, which was even more effective at mobilising, squeezing and brutalising its own people (Stalin's Russia). It wasn't only the bad guys who lost, it was the even badder guys who won. (the German Army was defeated on the battlefield by 1943, it was only after that that the weight of American manufacturing power, and airpower, really began to have an impact on events).

It's quite a sobering thought for a liberal historian, but we *are* good at processing information and following it to its logical conclusion ;-).

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

See, proof that conservatism is a birth defect.

We should work to help them overcome this problem. But no way should people handicapped in this manner be allowed to hold public office.

Posted by: craigie on September 10, 2007 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

The article should have been called, "Study Shows Conservatives' Brains Markedly Inferior."

Of course, conservatives don't have an equally good process if their process happens to turn up the right answer once in a while. Even a busted clock is right twice a day. A really crazy person might say something right once in a while. And if a conservative trained to do his job knows more about it than a liberal who isn't, it's not that the conservative is smart, it's that the conservative is trained.

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

We should work to help them overcome this problem. But no way should people handicapped in this manner be allowed to hold public office.

Maybe we could create a Special Washington for them where they could "practice" politics. Sort of like moot court for elected officials.

Posted by: shortstop on September 10, 2007 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

The brain doesn't have a mechanism that says, "This question is about Ms and Ws and not about politics, so we should make a lot of assumptions here while we shouldn't about politics" (or vice versa).

Be that as it may, the nature of the problems being solved in the two cases are in fact quite different. As I said, one is heavily value laden and inherently vastly more complex than the other. In one, the required reaction time is subsecond; in the other, it may take some time even to determine the ideologically correct answer to the problem -- for example, it may not be obvious at first blush whether a given claim or fact supports the conservative or the liberal point of view, and time and effort is required.

The notion that this "wait-and-see" mechanism for the simple case transfers to the other far more complex case is not in any way obvious. The claim that they are one and the same mechanism is not obvious either, and is in fact what the experiment might seem, rather surprisingly, to suggest.

Posted by: frankly0 on September 10, 2007 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Be that as it may, the nature of the problems being solved in the two cases are in fact quite different.

Yeah, but that doesn't mean that the parts of the brain that deal with them initially aren't the same. Which makes that point not matter, and makes the study results make sense.

Well, now at least we finally have some empirical proof of the superiority of liberal brains. Without the study, you'd have to be a mind reader to notice the difference between liberal and conservative brains. Or a George Bush propagandist.

Posted by: Swan on September 10, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Doc

London taxi cab drivers (who are required to know c. 1,000+ addresses to get their license, a test known as 'The Knowledge' which on average takes over 2 years to pass) have massively developed hypothalamuses.

Even into adulthood, if you practice a mental faculty, that part of the brain appears to develop further.

A well taught graduate programme (and most are probably not) probably develops certain parts of your critical thinking.

How then does one explain neocons, though? Incredibly intelligent men, who ignored inconvenient information in planning the invasion of Iraq, and continue to ignore inconvenient information in subsequent actions re the Middle East (you can see it in the pronouncements re Iranand re The Surge).

Intellectuals can be the worst for inflexible thinking and resistance to new information.

Libertarians are, I suspect, another kettle of fish entirely.

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 10, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Liberals will read this study. Conservatives will never acknowledge the results of this study. Say no more.

Posted by: Wallop on September 10, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

I would interpret the data to mean that liberals have better reflexes typical of lower species enabling them to react faster than thinking people. -Luther

Well, umm, Luther, ya know, you have to see something THEN think about it. Its the lower life forms that dont think in peaceful terms, you know, the might is right mentality.

DO what I say or I will HIT you doesn't require thought. Its tyrannical.

Posted by: Ya Know... on September 10, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

frankly0: "Apriori, why would one expect that the ability to recognize letters flexibly might correlate to political views"

I've been wondering this same thing. My guess is that it has to do with the personality trait of Openness to Experience, and that it doesn't correlate with ALL of conservatism's political views, the wacko fiscal stuff, for example, but specifically with what is called authoritarianism or traditionalism: adherence to conservative values (anti-gay, anti-abortion), cultural traditions (eg, fundamental Christianity), a willingness to follow a strong leader, and use force against dissent.

A related finding is that traditionalism is highly heritable. Discovering that conservative brains are less flexible when dealing with novel stimuli is a very consistent finding. It may not be the environment that shapes the brains, but the brains that seek out sympa environments. People who are slower to change will seek out environments--and political systems--that say they don't need to change.

IIrc, Altemeyer found that his RWA's were more likely to say "yes" than more liberal people, were slower to discern inconsistency between their behavior and their stated beliefs, and what is really interesting, they had more trouble with the Stroop test than liberals. This is all converging evidence.

Posted by: PTate in FR on September 10, 2007 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

A long time ago today, B asked, "I wonder where Libertarians fall on the curve?"

Libertarians would be just as wrong as anyone else, if not wronger, but they would argue every mistake they made, using very large and impassioned words, even to the point of convincing the test administrators to change the answer key.

Posted by: Howard on September 11, 2007 at 2:12 AM | PERMALINK

Howard

I fell out of my chair, almost, laughing. Yes that does remind me of at least some libertarians I know.

I am often reminded with libertarians (as I am with all of us of course) of Brian in Monty Python's Life of Brian:

Brian:
'We are all individuals'
Crowd (chants):
'We are all individuals'
lone plaintive voice:
'I'm not'

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 11, 2007 at 3:07 AM | PERMALINK

[i]I've been wondering this same thing. My guess is that it has to do with the personality trait of Openness to Experience, and that it doesn't correlate with ALL of conservatism's political views, the wacko fiscal stuff, for example, but specifically with what is called authoritarianism or traditionalism: adherence to conservative values (anti-gay, anti-abortion), cultural traditions (eg, fundamental Christianity), a willingness to follow a strong leader, and use force against dissent.[/i]

PTate in FR has grasped, above, the centre of this debate I think.

What the psychologists are identifying is the conservative/traditionalist mindset or bent, which is *not* the same thing as libertarians, neocons or many other stripes of the modern political right.

So the libertarians on the net go 'huh?' at these conclusions by psychologists. And the liberals go 'oh yes'.

Posted by: Valuethinker on September 11, 2007 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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