What Makes Us More Liberal or Conservative: Blame Our Brains

I probably don’t have to remind everyone of the presidential election coming up in 2016 or the Democratic and Republican primaries coming even sooner.  One thing’s for sure about presidential elections, they are always entertaining.  Another thing as equally for certain is that our chances of convincing someone of a different political persuasion to see things our way are pretty close to nil.  So, most of us do the smart thing and avoid any and all political discussions like a pothole in the road.  And with Thanksgiving coming up with those dreaded political discussions over dry turkey and weird casseroles, it’s a good time to step back and remember why we think the way we do.

Why is it that we can’t convince our misguided, knucklehead family members that our political logic is so obviously superior?  Are they just dumb or what?  Well, dumb doesn’t explain our political beliefs but the structure of our brains just might. If you’re a hippie liberal you might want to thank your anterior cingulate cortex.  And if you’re a conservative, it may be that old stick-in-the-mud amygdala region of your brain keeping you in your fuddy-duddy ways.

In their 2011 report, “Political Orientations are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults,” authors Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees assert that brain structure has a lot to do with our political leanings.  Their hypothesis, “that political liberalism (versus conservatism) is associated with differences in gray matter volume in anterior cingulate cortex,” was put to the test using MRI scans of 90 young adults who had self-reported their political attitudes on a number of issues on a 5-point scale.  This scale  was used to determine liberal and conservative leanings in each participant.  Findings supported their hypothesis as a liberals had increased gray matter volume in their anterior cingulate cortex.

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Results also indicated that conservatives reacted more aggressively to threatening situations, while liberals remained more chill.  Conservatives were also more threatened by emotional facial expressions. This reflects a difference in emotional processing, which the amygdala in the brain plays a role. Increased gray matter in this region was found in conservatives.

I think we can look at the past 50 years of American history and see how true this hypothesis probably is.  Liberals are more tolerant of what may be perceived threatening to our culture.  Gay marriage generally doesn’t freak out liberals but conservatives may feel like it could quite possibly be the beginning of the end of civilization.  Also, liberals are generally okay with increased gun control, while conservatives are very uneasy over such regulations.

In other words, liberal and conservative minds process information differently.  That’s probably not a news flash.  So, what in our evolutionary history created our political differences?  The report didn’t touch on that and I’m not sure myself but I have a feeling it’s the Yin and Yang effect at work.  As different as we are, we balance each other out, though admittedly in very aggravating ways.

Liberals are more open to change, while conservatives are more resistant to change.  Liberals are less fearful, while conservatives are more guarded.  It’s probably good that both liberal and conservatives exists but it sure is annoying, especially at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Kanai, Ryota et al. Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 8, 677-680.  Available from:  http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822%2811%2900289-2

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