Do liberals and conservatives think differently?

(cross posted from dailyKos)

OK, obviously we have very different opinions.  We’d like to think we’re smarter (whatever that means) but likely they think the same about themselves….. This isn’t about that.  This is about how the brains of conservatives and liberals work.  And it’s not based on ideology or opinion, but on scientific research

I subscribe to Scientific American Mind – fascinating stuff.

They had a brief article on a difference in thought processes between liberals and conservatives.  Liberals, it turns out, are better able to suppress habitual responses when faced with situations where the habitual response is incorrect.  Liberals are also more tolerant of ambiguity, while conservatives prefer more structure.  

That got me interested, and I pursued it to the articles that this short piece was based on.

The first reference was to Amodio, Jost, Master and Yee (2007): Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism Nature Neuroscience, 10, 1246 – 1247….(AJMY)

AJMY led me back to several articles and books, and it makes more sense to write this diary with those articles first.

Thoughts on how personality relates to political beliefs go back at least to Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, which I haven’t read in a very long time.  

One seminal article in the field is much more recent: Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway (2003): Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129 339-375.

On another angle, is it possible that liberalism and conservatism could be partially in our genes?  It seems so, according to Alford, Funk and Hibbing (2005).  Are political orientations genetically transferred? American Political Science Review, 99 153-167 (AFH)

and those led me elsewhere, but that’s going to be it for this diary.

All these are behind various walls; I accessed them through a university where I work, so I’m not even sure which is behind what wall – therefore, I am going to be careful about how much I quote.  Abstracts, though, are fair game.

JGKS note that a meta-analysis


          sidebar 1: meta-analysis is a set of statistical techniques for

          combining different studies of similar phenomena


of 88 articles from 12 countries indicated that political conservatism is predicted by death anxiety (r = 0.50), system instablity (r = 0.47), dogmatism/intolerance of ambiguity (r = 0.34), openness to experience (r = – 0.32), needs for order, structure, and closure (r = 0.26), integrative complexity (r = – 0.20), fear of threat and loss (r = 0.18) and self-esteem (r = – 0.09)

          sidebar 1: r is the correlation coefficient which is a

          measure of the linear relationship between two

          variables.  It ranges from -1 to 1; numbers above 0

          indicate a positive relationship (as one variable

          goes up, the other goes up); numbers below 0 indicate

          a negative relationship (as one variable goes up,

          the other goes down).  Numbers far from 0 (in either

          direction) indicate a strong relationship.  In

          psychology and social sciences, r below -0.3 or above

          0.3 are pretty strong<

In other words: Conservatives tend to be fearful and dogmatic, and to crave order and structure.

All this is rather controversial (which makes the AFH and AJMY studies even more valuable, see below).  One reason for this controversy is that some researchers have conflated two meanings of conservatism – the political and the psychological – into a messy amalgam of both.  Attitudes towards jazz, modern art, and horoscopes are probably not measuring the same core construct as attitudes towards the death penalty, tax structure, and abortion – the two constructs may be related (in fact, the research I report on here says that they are related) but they aren’t the same.

Two general characteristics of conservatives are 1) That they oppose change and 2) That they view social and economic inequality as benign, or even beneficial (thus, William  F Buckley once wrote an essay claiming that rich people were so valuable that, if there ever were a society where everyone were equally wealthy, they should randomly pick a small group and make them wealthy)

There are a variety of theories as to why people are conservative.  Some see it as self-interest.  There is certainly some face validity to the idea that the rich and powerful would oppose changes that might threaten their status, and would seek to justify inequality.  But this does not explain the phenomenon of poor conservatives (e.g. What’s the Matter with Kansas), nor of rich liberals (e.g. areas of San Francisco, NYC, and other places are full of wealthy liberals). JGKS posit that conservatism is due not to self-interest but to motivated social cognition; that is, one that emphasizes

the interface between cognitive and motivational properties of the individual as they impact fundamental social psychological phenomena

Thus, people who are fearful (whether rich or poor) fear change.  People who fear change seek to justify that fear by saying that the situation is either benign or even beneficial.  During slavery, many slave-holders justified slavery by claiming that it was the natural situation, or even that it was beneficial for Blacks (really!).  The various European colonizations were seen as bringing ‘civilization’ to the poor benighted regions of the world (you know, places like Africa, China and India that had no civilizations of their own /snark)

JGKS go on at some length about all this, and it’s interesting stuff. I recommend the article.  But it’s easy to theorize.  What about data?

If political views could be inherited, if they were somehow in our genes (even partially) that would indicate that there is, indeed, something real going on – something neural, something hard-science.  My training is in psychology and statistics, and I understand the mushiness of a lot of social science theorizing and model building.  The idea, though, that one could inherit political views is not taken very seriously by many.  To suggest this would invite laughter from many.  The only problem is, it seems to occur.  Readers of other diaries of mine will know my views on heritability quotients and the like (see nature nurture nonsense.  But AFS show evidence that there is some genetic component, by showing that monozygotic twins are more similar politically than dizygotic twins are, even after accounting for various other factors.

Even harder evidence would come from actual studies of the brain.  If the brains of conservatives are different from those of liberals, then something serious is happening; something that can’t be easily dismissed.  And those differences are exactly what AJMY show.  They asked people to self-rate themselves on a conservatism scale (one that has been shown to be highly reliable and valid), then they gave them a Go-NoGo task.  This consists of rapidly responding to a stimulus (or failing to respond).  The authors would repeatedly say “go” and expect a response, and occasionally throw in a “No Go” where the respondent was not supposed to respond.  Then they studied electroencephalographs as people did this task.  Liberals were better at the task, and

greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern

what does all that mean?  In brief, liberals will be better at Simon Says than conservatives 🙂  


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    • plf515 on December 20, 2007 at 4:27 am

    I will be up a while, but will be back again in the AM

  1. Bob Altemeyer, John Dean, Riane Eisler and Naomi Klein, I’d say the answer is definitively: yes.

    That said, I suspect that most people fit somewhere along a continuum. Or more than one. (continnua?) The idea of liberal vs conservative doesn’t make sense.

    Some are pulled in a more religious direction, whether their social or economic principle be left or right. Others are libertarian in economic, but not social issues or vice versa. Yet others are libertarian in both.

    The best marker I’ve seen separates social and economic issues. This makes sense for people who say that they are, for example, economic conservatives and social liberals. However, in today’s world (and that of Reagan, if not his predecessors), an economic conservative is a spending-friendly sort, at least for big business.  Yet this type still thinks of themselves as fiscally conservative.

    Social and economic issues are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The environment would be considered by most as as social issue, but the lack of consideration of transportation costs/environmental impact has enormous consequences for both society and the economy. Some people are finally awakening to this reality.

    So, back to your original point. I’d say the answer is yes, but most people probably fall in the middle. The so-called undecided voters.

  2. Conservatives stand athwart the stream of history, their hand in the air, saying stop.

    Can we……CURE conservatism is the ultimate question, lol!

    • Edger on December 20, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    I want the war ended.

    I want the government to keep it’s fingers out of people’s private lives and affairs.

    I want no more preemptive invasions.

    I want no more government subsidization of weapons manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, oil companies and oppressive, murderous dictatorships around the world.

    I want the government to not be able to spy on  citizens.

    I want to have to use a microscope to find the U.S. government

    Maybe I’m a conservative, and people who call themselves conservatives are full of shit.

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