Just Sayin'

Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.

They Were Born That Way !

Science, Political

Sometimes it seems like progressives and conservatives live in totally different worlds. Given the same information, people at one end of the political spectrum reach very different conclusions than those at the other end. For example, in the recent Fox News-driven Cliven Bundy circus, conservatives see a big government stomping on the God-given rights of a folk hero. Progressives see a law-breaking kook who stole a million dollars from the rest of us.

Your ideological identification is a big part of your personality and psychology. In order to truly understand human nature, it is important to understand the factors that affect the development of people's political ideology.

There have been many academic psychological studies that characterize basic liberal and conservative personalities. One such study (The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives) concludes, "As a general rule, liberals are more open-minded in their pursuit of creativity, novelty, and diversity, whereas conservatives lead lives that are more orderly, conventional, and better organized."

These differences manifest themselves in many interesting and sometimes, unexpected ways. For example the dorm rooms of self-identified liberal college students tend to have more books, while the rooms of conservative students tend to have more ironing boards.

There are numerous personal preferences that have been found to be strongly correlated with one's political orientation. A quiz based on these correlations was published in Time magazine, and asks twelve seemly-non-political questions. Based on factors such as your preference for dogs vs cats, taste in movies, or what internet browser you use, your likelihood of being liberal or conservative is determined (I scored as 86% liberal, 14% conservative).

Most of the myriad personality studies come to the not-so-surprising conclusion that, even in their non-political lives, liberals tend to be more liberal and conservatives tend to be more conservative.

However, as a physical scientist, I am more interested in whether there is a physiological basis for these political differences. That is, does the nature of your brain determine your political ideology? Is there a factor in your biology that determines whether you will prefer Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz?

Some scientists are exploring these effects of an individual's biology on their political ideology. A study conducted by researchers at the University College of London found significant differences in brain structure between self-defined liberals and conservatives. It appears that the right amygdala of conservatives tends to be larger that that of liberals. This area of the brain is associated with the processing of emotions such as fear and disgust.

Other work seems to reinforce the amygdala findings. For example, a study from Cornell (Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted Than Liberals) involved a series of questions that probed both political leanings and the level of sensitivity to disgusting situations. It found a strong correlation between conservatism and high disgust sensitivity.

Yet another confirming study (Disgust Sensitivity and the Neurophysiology of Left-Right Political Orientations) found that conservatives are more sensitive to disgusting pictures, such as a man eating live bugs. The sensitivity was measured by increased skin conductance: higher sweating, higher conductance. As mentioned above, the right amygdala is involved in processing emotions such as disgust and fear.

The same study that found that conservatives have a larger right amygdala also found that the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals tends to be larger. This area of the brain has been associated with the ability to cope with uncertainty and handle conficting information.

Research examining correlations between human biological factors and political ideology is still in its infancy. It will be interesting to watch how the field progresses. Such work can go a long way toward understanding why humans act the way we do.

Of course, people have free will. We are not completely determined by our biology. The correlations that have been found are interesting and compelling ones, but none of the correlations are absolute. However, once we realize that people can experience the world in fundamentally different ways, ways based on their physiology, it might be easier to understand the different political views of others.

Several recent studies have indicated that there are inherent physiological differences between liberals and conservatives. So don't be so harsh on your Tea Party uncle. It appears that being a wing-nutter may not be his choice, but part of his basic genetic make-up. However, as more scientific data in this interesting field is gathered, we could get closer to a cure for his condition ; )



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