our political nature — 3/5/14

Today’s selection — from Our Political Nature by Avi Tuschman. Universally around the world, most people can identify themselves as politically conservative or liberal, with roughly similar numbers on both sides of the spectrum. Recent research suggests that there is a neurological basis for the difference — with a majority of conservatives showing a larger right amygdala (the center for certain emotions, especially fear) and a majority of liberals showing a larger anterior cingulate cortex (which regulates sympathetic activity):

“When we talk about our specific political convictions, we think of them as lying somewhere on a spectrum between a ‘left’ and a ‘right.’ These terms come from the 1791 French Legislative Assembly, where monarchists sat on the right and antimonarchists sat on the left. But exactly how far do these concepts transcend their origin? Are notions of left and right more relevant to Californians than they are to Tunisians? Does everyone have a left-right orientation?

“The National Election Studies, which are the leading survey of voters in US presidential polls, have found that over three quarters of Americans feel comfortable pinpointing their views on a two-dimensional political spectrum. … Collecting people’s liberal-conservative self-placements is useful because they correlate very strongly with their actual voting habits.

“How does the United States compare to the rest of the world? [According to] a colossal report called the World Values Survey … nearly eight out of ten people in the world identified with a particular political orientation. …

“Of the great majority of people around the world who will express an ideology to a surveyor, we find an intriguing pattern in their responses. The World Values Survey always asks: ‘In political matters, people talk of ‘the left’ and ‘the right.’ How would you place your views on this [ten-point] scale, generally speaking?’ [There answers show a fairly even distribution over] a bell-shaped curve. Measures of our bodies (such as height, weight, and blood pressure) frequently form a similar, natural shape; graphs of income distribution, however, seldom do. …

“The important point … is this: ordinary people everywhere use the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe their political orientations. So the left-right political spectrum is universal. It forms a natural, bell-shaped curve….

“Is there any concrete, physiological evidence that could explain the apparent differences in our political personalities? …

“Researchers at University College London recruited ninety students, and had them confidentially place themselves on a five-point political spectrum. … Their choices could range from ‘very conservative’ to ‘very liberal.’ Then neuroscientist Geraint Rees used magnetic resonance imaging (MRls) to scan each of their brains.

“The results were stunning. From the MRls, the scientists were able to accurately predict which of those individuals was more likely to be a liberal or a conservative. The more conservative students had a larger right amygdala; greater liberalism, on the other hand, was associated with a larger anterior cingulate. …

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“Someone who only had the measurements of these two brain regions would be able to correctly guess whether an individual was ‘conservative’ or ‘very liberal’ about 72 percent of the time (no student identified as ‘very conservative’). Aside from the right amygdala and the anterior cingulate, no other regions showed a significant and independent correlation with political orientation. An additional study later replicated the same findings.”

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