Homo politicus – hard wired?

They say a liberal is a conservative who has not been mugged yet. There are, of course, other reductionisms about political persuasions, variously attributed and mis-attributed, e.g. “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head”, apparently said by Francois Guizot.

The differences between Liberals and Conservatives consistently show up in psychological profiling. Political scientists and psychologists note that conservatives appear to show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty.

A new study “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism*” published in Nature Neuroscience describes the recent work at the New York University by David Amodio and his team in exploring whether political preferences are hard-wired.

Their 43 subjects were first asked to rate their political persuasion on a scale of -5 to 5, with -5 being the most liberal extreme and + 5 representing the most conservative score. The subjects then sat before a computer screen and were asked to press one of two buttons “M” or “W” – reacting within 1/2 second to respond each time – depending on whether they saw an “M” or a “W”. Of the 500 trials completed by each participant, the same letter was presented 80% of the time, making the opposite stimulus something of a surprise.

It was found that when the less common letter appeared on the screen, the self-identified conservative subjects pressed the “usual” button 47% of the time instead of switching to the correct button. By comparison, the self-identified liberals responded more readily to the new signal with a slightly lower error rate of 37%.

The electroencephalogram (EEG) showed that the liberals had twice as much activity in a brain region – the anterior cingulate cortex – which is thought to act as a mental brake by helping the mind recognize difficult or unusual situations where it must change course.

Interesting! So it appears we may be hard wired for our specific political proclivities. Political research shows conservatives tend to stick with old routines of habit and are more likely to resist change. This research does nothing to quell that characterisation.

Of course, it is virtually impossible to conduct brain scans of all voters to predict how they might vote so psephologists need not start worrying yet about losing their jobs. However employers could make use – and indeed abuse – this information to prejudge – or misjudge – potential. Want to hire for repetitive jobs? Get the conservatives lined up. Want creative thinking, complex problem solving skills or someone to fit that high risk international assignment? Get the liberals in.

But are we not constantly told that it is possible to train the brain? To reduce pain, to suppress bad memories, and for all manner of other outputs through cognitive re-wiring including with the help of drugs, that I wrote about earlier (not that it was the most popular post, suggesting how dry the subject is for most people!)?

What else may be at work? How does individual motivation to change, learn, improve affect this “hard-wiring”?

In short, no need to get excited yet! Some politicians do cross the floor from time to time, so perhaps that re-wiring does work, if cognition is kept engaged. Employers too may yet have hope.

* Link is subscription protected. If any of the readers – or indeed I – find a ‘free’ link, please do share. Thanks.

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