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The Biology (or Is It?) of Political Orientation

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This appeared on the "Health and Science" page of the September 28 issue of THE WEEK. It reports something interesting but, as I'll comment after the piece, it provides no substantiation for a possible interpretation it offers to explain its interesting findings.

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From THE WEEK:

 


THE BIOLOGY OF POLITICAL ORIENTATION

Liberals and conservatives not only have different views of the world-- their brains actually process differently, a new study has found. "In the past, people thought that politics were all environmentally influenced," New York University psychologist David Amodio tells Scientific American. But his study shows that there are liberal and conservative "cognitive styles" that may be largely hard-wired into the brain. In the study, volunteers rated themselves on a scale between strongly liberal and strongly conservative, then took a test that measured their reaction to conflict and change. The test involved reacting to letters flashed briefly on a computer screen; most of the letters were M, but every now and then, the stream of M's were interrupted by a W. The test subjects were asked to continually press a button whenever they saw an M, and do nothing when a W came up. Liberals, the study found, were more than twice as likely to spot and react appropriately to the W's when they came along. A brain scan showed that the liberals had more activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), a region of the forebrain that allows people to break from habit when necessary. A brain with an active ACC, researchers say, is more likely to alter its views based on new evidence, rather than discount new evidence in order to maintain a steady opinion, as conservatives do. This doesn't mean liberals are smarter or better, Amodio said. The cognitive style of conservatives, which is "more structured and persistent," may be useful in situations where it is necessary to block out irrelevant or distracting information in making a judgment.



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MY CRITIQUE:

What I like about the article is that it provides clear empirical support for what we've observed about the inability of so many of the supporters of this regime to "alter [their] views based on new evidence, rather than discount new evidence to maintain a steady opinion..."

In this connection, these findings fit in well with a recent piece I wrote on my own website about "Inattentional Blindness," to be found at click here. This concerned an experiment in which half the people failed to even notice a woman in a gorilla suit getting in the way of a basketball game. One of the main points made there is that people are inclined to see only what they expect to see. In the terms of the present experiment, half the people just kept seeing M's instead of W's.

But just as I indicated on that earlier thread, it is not so clear what is human nature and what has been trained into some people more than others. The earlier thread quoted a scientist declaring, with reference to that gorilla-basketball experiment, about human nature:

 

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[I]t’s practically impossible for a human being to actually see something brand-new in the first place… Humans are built to see what they’re expecting to see, and it’s hard to expect to see something you’ve never seen.


But there was, after all, another half of the people who DID see gorillas.

And now there's the similar problem with this article, which declares early on that the different cognitive styles between liberals and conservatives "may be hard-wired."

It is possible that they are "hard-wired." And it is possible that the actual study done by this NYU psychologist provides evidence of that possibility. But in this article in THE WEEK, I can see no evidence whatever to support that possibility.

Perhaps it has been established in the field of psychology that the level of activity in the ACC (anterior cingulated cortex) is genetically determined, and immune from the influence of learning. I strongly doubt that this is true, however. Just because one can discover a neurological correlate of the differences between liberals and conservatives does not mean that these differences are hard-wired.

I would bet, in fact, that the enculturation process by which people are taught to be more open-minded or more close-minded produces just such neurological differences, such different habitual patterns of how the brain gets used. If a study were done to see how genetic hard-wiring vs. cultural socialization figure in the picture, my bet is that the genetics between red-state Bushites and blue-state liberals would be entirely comparable, but that the socialization process has created differences that manifest both in the treatment of evidence and in the patterns of brain activity.

A final point: regarding the statement, in the item in THE WEEK, that


This doesn't mean liberals are smarter or better, Amodio said. The cognitive style of conservatives, which is "more structured and persistent," may be useful in situations where it is necessary to block out irrelevant or distracting information in making a judgment.


As one who thinks that we have altogether too much mutual contempt across the partisan divide in America, I can sympathize with the impulse to make such a statement to try to foster mutual respect. But it should nonetheless be noted that there's nothing in the article here itself to support these assertions.

In this particular exercise --the M's and the W's-- the liberals ARE smarter. They do the job at hand better.

It may be the case that one could design another experiment in which the cognitive tendencies of the conservatives enable them to outperform the liberals in another exercise involving a kind of intellilgence. But until that's been demonstrated, and if we have only the present experiment to go on, there seems no reason to conjecture about how the liberals might be less able to make good judgments "in situations where it is necessary to block out irrelevant or distracting information."

In America today, we clearly have a crisis that's being fed by the inability of tens of millions of conservatives to change their initial judgment that the Bushites are righteous and good leaders in the face of ever-more evidence that they are, in fact, liars and bullies and criminals. So maybe it would be better to stick with the present evidence of a disability on the conservative side, and leave the conjectures about possible liberal disabilities for when there's some evidence or problem to give such speculation meaningful substance.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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