Monday, September 10, 2007

A Different Kind of Brain or the Same Old Biased Research?

A number of bloggers are discussing this new "study" that finds that the liberal and conservative brain is different:

The differences between liberals and conservatives may run deeper than how they feel about welfare reform or the progress of the Iraq war: Researchers reported Sunday that their brains may actually work differently.

In a study likely to raise the hackles of some conservatives, psychologist David Amodio and others found that a specific region of the brain's cortex is more sensitive in people who consider themselves liberals than in self-declared conservatives.

The brain region in question helps people shift gears when their usual response would be inappropriate, supporting the notion that liberals are more flexible in their thinking.

In yet another of their "objective" studies, New York University professors draw conclusions that make liberals look good and conservatives look bad, although the authors attempt to make themselves look objective about the new study when one of them, John Jost, whom I have blogged about before, states the following:

"It's wrong to conclude that our results provide only bad news for conservatives," he wrote on Aug. 28, 2003. "True, we find some support for the traditional 'rigidity-of-the-right' hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity."

I might be more persuaded by Jost's defense of his research as objective if he wasn't forking money over to Hillary Clinton--isn't that a conflict of interest? If not, it should be.

I wonder if this study could be duplicated in a double-blind study using researchers who weren't liberals as well as subjects who weren't college students? Somehow, I doubt it.


Blogger Tom Hilton said...

A "liberal and conservative brain" really would be different.

Snark aside, isn't the dismissive stance taken by conservatives (e.g., Crittenden, Jammie Wearing Fool, Cafe Hayek, Althouse, yourself) precisely the reaction that this study would predict?

3:24 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

No worries: John Edwards will make everyone be tested beforehand so that wrong thinkers can be re-educated back to compliance. You will all be so grateful.

3:31 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Tom Hilton,

The dismissive stance would be indicative to you of inflexibility in what way? Are you saying that to show our "flexibility" we should accept this study as the gospel truth because a couple of researchers at NYU who have made their lifelong passion out of doing studies looking for ways to discredit conservatives say it is so? Not sure what you mean by your comment. And FWIW, I am a libertarian, not sure what that would mean to the researchers. My guess is, nothing good.

4:08 PM, September 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, t.h., if someone did a study of liberals painting them in a negative way, wouldn't they dismiss it? You know - kind of the way they dismiss other peoples' views on Iraq, the President, the economy, etc.? And sorry - saying they're dismissive because they've carefully weighed all the various arguments and arrived at the correct answer is just begging the question. Go look for nuance and ambiguity at Daily Kos. Or at the DNC.

Everybody these days is pissing on everybody else and nobody gives a damn about careful reasononing. We should all either stop doing it or accept it. Enough with the faux psychology explaining why we're right and everybody else is wrong. It's called "human nature."

4:17 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger 64 said...

I guess you were right about the liberal-tilt in the field. Only someone totally ensconced in a liberal environment would use politics to describe behavior.

4:21 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger 64 said...

Hyperlink to the above.

4:22 PM, September 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I might also go out on limb and say that careful reasoning based on the available evidence is not always the way to decide on a course of action. Some people just like to believe it is - and of course, they like to believe they always practice it when arriving at their opinions. Makes them feel justified.

4:25 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger David Foster said...

What about people who were "liberal" at one stage in their lives and are now "conservative"? Did their brains get rewired? More importantly, what about the change in the meanings of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" over time? Do the professors believe that these constructs represent Platonic Forms?

5:08 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Don Surber said...

You get the Big Fish for the Catch of the Day!

5:32 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Hi Don,

I appreciate the link---I mean--linky thing....good. Do you....understand?

5:48 PM, September 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if this study could be duplicated in a double-blind study using researchers who weren't liberals as well as subjects who weren't college students? Somehow, I doubt it.

I don't get it. If it's a double blind study, who cares what the researchers are? (That would be a different study, can you detect system bias in researches conclusions depending on their political orientation.)

FYI, I left a comment two days ago concerning the Linda Fairstein quote that you cited sometime last week. To the best of my knowledge, with a link at that post, Glenn Sacks is saying that Fairstein denies making that quote. Which is too bad -- it's certainly a doozy.

8:43 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

eponymous --

double-blind study - an experimental procedure in which neither the subjects of the experiment nor the persons administering the experiment know the critical aspects of the experiment.

As the critical aspect of the study is the correlation of brain structure to liberal or conservative viewpoint and that would be determined by the researchers (who are liberal or conservative), how would you suggest it be masked from the researchers, other than by balancing liberal vs conservative researchers?

Curious minds want to know.

10:08 PM, September 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and that would be determined by the researchers

that's not how double blind experiments work.

that measurement can be made in many ways, from self-declarations, to the political tests we find on the net, or to third parties that have been tested to determine their "inter-rater reliability"

That would leave the researchers with the design of their experiment, and the data, and their fitting the curves. I do think there is an interesting experiment which would be to give various datasets to various researchers and ask them to fit various curves regarding various social issues and then to see how if they fit the curves corresponds to their political environments.

11:32 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Danny said...

they would never allow a true double-blind study, becasue the results wont back their "liberals are smarter, conservatives are idiots" hypothesis.

11:59 PM, September 10, 2007  
Blogger Kevin said...

I always find it interesting as to how liberals claim to be "nuanced" (and they even have a study to prove it!) It looks to me like it's pretty much black-and-white to them: If you are against partial birth abortion, then you are an extremist who wants to control women's bodies. If you are against affirmative action, then you are a racist. If you favor small government, then you want to help the corporations exploit the poor. And, of course, if you don't believe wholeheartedly in manmade global warming, then you are an idiot or evil (of course, they would never actually use an unsophisticated word like "evil"). I don't see them leave many topics open for actual debate and discussion. But maybe I'm missing something because, you know, I'm a conservative (according to the liberals' dichotomy).

7:23 AM, September 11, 2007  
Blogger David Foster said...

Liberals (as that term is defined today) do tend to congratulate themselves on their superior sense of "nuance" and their understanding of "shades of gray." Arthur Koestler has some thoughts on when "nuance" is appropriate and when it isn't.

10:25 AM, September 11, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

eponymous --

I understand how double-blind works, I provided a definition.

1) self-declarations - Sorry, won't work. I've had people tell me I'm not conservative when they've found out some of my views.

2) political - Um, you actually find those reliable? They usually leave me in stitches.

3) third parties that have been tested to determine their "inter-rater reliability" - This one is the crux of my parody. I do not for one moment believe you can find such an animal as pertains to politics, which is the lib/con the article speaks to and is displayed in their 'conclusion'.

The reason is that there is no actual definition for either, only a subjective determination.

Add that the fact that I am conservative in some ways and liberal in others negates the entire supposition in the first place.

This is the overall problem with sociology in general. It's subjective.

11:59 AM, September 11, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason is that there is no actual definition for either, only a subjective determination.

And creating strict definitions in an attempt to produce objective results would probably reduce the number of "true" liberals/conservatives to such a small number as to make any results irrelevant to the overall population.

2:57 PM, September 11, 2007  
Blogger TheLastPsychiatrist said...

Jesus. Nature Neuroscience.

I saw this on Metafilter (so hat tip to them.)

First, let me explain the implication of the study. What they are saying is that political persuasion is a result of an innate biologic response to a general ability of cognitive control.

They're not saying that conservatives think differently than liberals; they are saying that the person is likely conservative or liberal because of the way they are wired. That conservatives have an innate lesser ability to inhibit a cognitive process (read: impulse) but are better than liberals at "sticking to the path."

First, the study is crap. "Conservative" and "liberal" are screens, red herrings. This study could actually be testing between first borns and last borns, for example. Or some other factor.

Second, the authors have a strong bias that affects their science. Not the outcome, but rather the way in which their scientific questions are asked. Amodio is known for studies in implicit prejudice/ racial bias. Interestingly, one of his notions is that our behavior is influenced not only by "who we are" but also by who we want others to think we are-- reputation.

This study is less about conservative or liberal, and more about whether people are anything other than their biology.

You'll say I'm exaggerating. I'm not.

3:49 PM, September 11, 2007  
Blogger ravenshrike said...

As I noted on /., all this study proves is that liberals(and by liberal I mean artsy progressives) are more accurate than conservatives(and by conservative I mean hard science republican types) at determining between a simple binary solution set of the same shape rotated 180 degrees. It also means that the liberals probably can't read upside down.

10:54 PM, September 11, 2007  
Blogger Dragon Hawk said...

I find that most liberals, as the term is usually currently defined, are less flexible in their thinking. They become nasty and loud if they discover a 'non-believer' in their midst. I know that I have to keep my head down among them or be hectored. They seem incapable of seeing that other people can have different views without being stupid or evil. These are most of t he liberals that I know are liberals, btw, the ones that can never let politics go no matter what the situation. There are probably liberals out there that don't always talk about politics so I don't know who they are.

So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there are inflexible people all across the political spectrum, and thoughtful people too. But if I produced a study that showed that, it wouldn't support the bias that the *media* wants to put out there, so no one would pay attention to it.

10:52 AM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


There was a study done on far left leaning radicals (Rothman and Lichter) that I have posted on before showing that they had a host of what one would call negative traits but no one picks up on this study because the academic world does not examine negative studies of liberals. You can find my post on the book and study here:

11:08 AM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

ravenshrike --

Again, the study proves nothing because there's no delineation between "artsy" types and "science" types. There are multitudes who have both traits and those people have political views not necessarily corresponding to art-liberal, science-conservative.

2:48 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger ada47 said...

ha ha ha ha!! This is freekin' hilarious!

David Amodio has apparently never been to afaculty meeting if he thinks that "liberals are more flexible in their thinking."

3:47 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

This sounds like something you've touched on in the past, but I can't find the post I was thinking of. Or maybe it was that Jost one your mentioned. Anyways, I was not upset about this study. It does seem like conservatives are more rigid and consistent whereas liberals tend to be wishy-washy. I am surprised that the brain would be so different. Is it genetic? Probably most brains are developed before people dive into politics.

6:10 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Labels are really so 20th century.

Technically, for instance, I would describe myself broadly as a left-leaning libertarian except I don't really trust other people to run the world. Ergo, I wish to subvert national governments and establish a kinder, gentler form of tyrannical domination. I am inspired by the works of Gandhi, Martin Luther King & Vlad Tepes.

Is that so wrong?

6:17 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger SMSgt Mac said...

Dr. Helen
Have you noticed that this crew trots out the same junk on an almost exact 11 month cycle?
This is in fact the second time you've been able to say "you've blogged about" this before.

Smells like someone's living off a grant with payments handed over annually based upon publication. Let's hope it isn't a five-year contract.

10:03 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Rick said...

Most of comments here strongly support the finding that many conservative brains work differently than those of liberals. That is nothing new. How biased can you get than to automatically dismiss research on the basis of personal attacks? You appeal to guilt by association, that one of the researchers gives to Clinton, and then generalize that all liberals are biased. Cognitive dissonance can be a pure pain. Is that why instead of scientifically critiquing the research you directly appeal to emotion and bias, otherwise known as confirmation bias?

3:07 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger GeorgeH said...

"The brain region in question helps people shift gears when their usual response would be inappropriate, supporting the notion that liberals are more flexible in their thinking."

Aha, liberals are people with flexible principles and morals. Makes sense to me.

4:03 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


From what I have read of the various researchers who are conducting this series of "trash conservatives," studies they seem biased. Heck, even they admit that some of their work is a partisan exercise:

"Glaser acknowledged that the team's exclusive assessment of the psychological motivations of political conservatism might be viewed as a partisan exercise. However, he said, there is a host of information available about conservatism, but not about liberalism."

My question, why is there no information on liberals? Do they not allow it?

And talk about biased, if reality doesn't match up with what these "unbiased" researchers think, they just say that those who are spout leftist ideology are really just political conservatives.

"The researchers conceded cases of left-wing ideologues, such as Stalin, Khrushchev or Castro, who, once in power, steadfastly resisted change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism.

Yet, they noted that some of these figures might be considered politically conservative in the context of the systems that they defended. The researchers noted that Stalin, for example, was concerned about defending and preserving the existing Soviet system."

So forgive me if I don't trust this gang of researchers, giving to Clinton is just the icing on the cake.

4:17 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Hanley Family said...

Maybe conservatives are just better at pattern recognition.

The research alone is sort of interesting, and may well be perfectly valid. But it is a little premature to assess value judgments to it.

11:40 PM, September 13, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a deep thinker. However, I would never ask a Ford pick up truck lover to fairly assess the good and bad about a Chevrolet pick up truck, in a report funded by a grant from Ford.

2:28 AM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Sounds like a good analogy to me. The problem is that these researchers seem desperate to extropolate all kinds of meaning to some college students engaging in simple operations of pressing a button for an M or W. Why not use a C for cash and an M for marvelous since conservatives are said to like cash and liberals are said to care about their status?

It could be that the conservative students--if indeed they were even conservative--had a harder time changing course when they saw a W standing for Dubya. There could be many reasons--but to take this data and say that conservatives are inflexible, rigid, don't change course, and are not open to new experience is a bit of a leap. And it is the way the researchers say it that gives away their bias or perhaps the media distortion of the findings that give away their bias.

5:33 AM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's been well documented that professors in the humanities and social sciences are about 90% Democrats, while those in engineering, business, and the hard sciences are much closer to the general population in party registration.

If the same thing is true of undergrads used in this study, then they may be finding differences among people in different types of academic fields. (We can roughly group these two categories of academic fields as those whose non-academic job prospects involve the phrase "Regular or extra crispy?" and those that don't.)

I tried to find this "study" online, but the author doesn't have *any* of his papers online at his web page. This seems to be standard practice among social science types. I routinely find nearly any engineering or computer science papers I need available freely at the authors' home pages. Maybe the social science people have something to hide? Just a thought.

3:36 PM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger B. Durbin said...

I tend not to trust any so-called "scientific" study with such a small sample size— 45 students, if I recall correctly.

45 out of 300 million is so small that it's barely a fraction of the margin of error.

1:47 PM, September 15, 2007  
Blogger Friend of USA said...

After reading this ,

" ...They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

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

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

and then this,

"... Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas..."

I came up with my own little theory! ( I'm only half serious )

Liberals who generally hate Bush or W probably (consciuosly or not) associated the W with something bad they should stay away from , yes I mean Bush who is often called W.

The W to liberals was not just an upside down M, emotions were involved with that W .

And those emotions triggered by the letter W explain why there was more brain activity with liberals.

And don't forget that more brain activity does not necessarily mean
more intelligent reasoning.

If you have an IQ of 80 and you are trying to understand your phone bill, there will be a lot of brain activity but not necessarely intelligent results.

Don't get fooled by the words
"brain activity" they often mean very little.

Conservatives generally do not hate Bush or W as he is called often and saw the letter W only as a letter.

No emotions were involved here with conservatives, so they had less brain activity.
the W was simply an upside down M to them and that explains why they made more mistakes.

I'll go even further! ( still half serious about the whole thing )

The scientists knew from the start that if they chose the letter W as the one that is
" wrong "
just like Bush or W is
" wrong " ,
it would be natural to liberals to avoid the letter W and they would make less mistake.

4:55 PM, September 15, 2007  
Blogger Sarnac said...

Sorry I'm weeks late to the comments ...

I do happen to believe that:
1: There is a marked difference between brain-wiring conditions that affects political leanings.
2: It's not binary but a spectrum.
3. That is it not definitive.

My perspective is somewhat different from yours (collectively) in that I'm an Asperger's Autistic and therefore I am bio-neurologically different:

I am wired differently in that the "mirror complex" neural social-coprocessor in my brain was mapped into doing something else (seeing patterns in things instead of people).

Interestingly, from my warped perspective, when viewed from a distance, I can still use my pattern-recognition capabilities on people and their behaviors ...

What I see is that politics seems to be divided on individualism / groupism lines.

Individualists (who believe in individual rights, responsibilities and solutions : capitalism, libertarianism)

... oppose groupists (who believe in group rights, responsibilities and solutions: socialism, statism).

I have noticed that people's social brain-wiring (development of their mirror-complex) defines how individualist or groupist they are ... and thus how drawn they are to social activity and group-solutions to life's problems ... or how they are driven to find their own path and solutions.

More than most of you, I am unusually sensitive to how someone is wired (the more socially gregarious someone is, the more drained/unsettled/off/icky I feel from their attention and emotional smothering). Unlike most ASpies, I have heavy exposure to socialites since my wife is a Belly Dancer, a physicist, a cosplayer, a geek, and an ASpie also (yes ... it's possible ... but VERY draining for her).

My unscientific observation and analysis is that the more someone's "mirror complex" is socially developed, the more socially reactive and emotional they are and the less cause+effect -aware they are ... and vice-versa.

In this, I happen to agree with the groupists that individualists are less emotionally reactive to the plights and problems of other people (and consequently more willing to accept ideas like that not everybody advances in lockstep in civilization's growth).

Similarly, I agree with the groupists that groupists "care" more and seek society-wide solutions like the minimum wage, welfare and socialist price-controls (except they miss the logical cause+effect part where those lead to unemployment, poverty and supply-failure(famine)).

And I can agree with the groupists that individualists do not feel the vicarious overwhelming pain of warfare the way groupists do ... so we do not hestitate in fighting enslavers, nazis and jihadis when they appear.

However, groupists do not appear capable of easily recognizing or understanding individual evil intent or behaviour (or insanity or criminality) and instead look for root-causes (i.e. what did US or world-wide society do to X to cause him to do Y to Z).

This is why the individual-rights libertarians, the individual-responsibility theocrats and the individual-opportunity capitalists find a common roof under the Republican party (As a capitalist libertarisn-ish type, I can understand the ind.resp. religious types even if I think that the greater likelihood is that we were visited by aliens with hologram-projectors).

And this is why the managed-economy socialists, the managed-economy environmentalists, the group/identity-politickers (feminsts, LGBT, AARP, Racists (segregationists, old Southern governors, Byrd, Sharpton, Jackson, LaRaza, NAACP)), statists (HRClinon, communists, etc), unionists, anti-capitalists (and peaceniks) ... all fall into the -s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t--Democratic Party.

3:30 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger bilweidner said...

I am a conservative currently trying to understand why the political divide is even wider than the sexual divide. In politics if Conservatives are from Mars than Liberals are from a completely different dimension in the time-space continuum.
I like this new information, as I do believe it is very helpful to my quest. If we focus on one example: Man Made Global Warming, we can see how quickly and easily the liberal minded have accepted this phenomena. The conservative (in the other dimension) although overwhelmed currently by media pressure and imposed guilt still has a problem with accepting this new religion while knowing how flawed our science can be for one, and while credible scientists continue to challenge and weigh the data affecting climate change. To me, this study helps to define what a conservative is, and why a conservative should be heard out given certain conditions such as 21st century USA. The societal changes that have taken place in the last 50 years are unprecedented in time. Many good changes, (equality regardless of race color or sex) as well as many bad changes (the breakdown of the family unit) have occurred. I believe the conservative today is saying let’s stop the progression because there is too much bad, while the liberal is saying let’s keep it going because of all the good we have done. Today, I am a conservative…in 1950 I hope I would have been a liberal…Today, intellectually, I pray that conservatism slows things down, because I need room to breath!!!!
Bil Weidner

9:34 AM, April 12, 2008  

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