Are there differences at the neural level in the ways that liberals and conservatives process information?

Some theories suggest that conservatives tend to have a more structured and persistent cognitive style, where liberals tend to be more open to ambiguity.  Building on this idea, a recent paper by David Amodio and his colleagues investigated whether liberals and conservatives would show different brain responses when completing a task requiring cognitive control.  They tested this question by recording event related potentials (brain activity) as participants performed what psychologists call a “go-no go task”.  This task involves pressing a button every time an arrow in one direction is shown on a screen, and withholding that response when an arrow in the opposite direction is presented.  Performance on this task can be thought of as a proxy for one’s ability to switch gears, or to inhibit a prepotent response in favor of a conflicting demand.  Results of the investigation suggested that those high in dispositional liberalism showed stronger activity in an area of the brain called the ACC (which has been associated with conflict monitoring) during “no-go” trials (when response inhibition was needed), while conservatives showed less ACC acitivity on “no-go” trials (D. Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007).  The authors, therefore, conclude that liberals may have more sensitivity to cues for altering habitual response pattern:
“Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political
orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of
a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation”  (p. 2).

This is the first study connecting ideology to a basic neurocognitive system of self-regulation, and as such leaves many questions unanswered.  For example, would the results of less conflict monitoring on a go-no go task generalize to the processing of other more important, real-life tasks?  Is the distinction of liberal versus conservative a helpful distinction in this regard, or would it make more sense to consider other personality factors (those who are more or less likely to regulate prepotent responses, independent of political affiliation)?


8 thoughts on “Are there differences at the neural level in the ways that liberals and conservatives process information?

  1. That may be true, but the republican party has become the party of neo-conservatives, which is a radical ideology. True conservatives, such as Eisenhower, are somewhere left of center in today’s political climate.

  2. I don’t mean to be a hater, but this is the kind of science summary that I tend to be wary of. Two basic questions-
    1) You told us that liberals showed more activation in a brain area associated w/cognitive conflict during inhibition trials. Did that activation actually mapped onto task performance in this study (as opposed to correlations in previous non-political studies). Did liberals as a group outperform conservatives at inhibiting on the task? At the individual level, did activation predict performance across groups?
    2) I’m not a brain guy. But my guess is that when it comes to the brain, lots of things are associated w/lots of things. In the case of ACC its probably associated w/lots of things besides cognitive conflict. Now, at least we have a fair grasp on what the behavioral task tests, but its still hard to say that acc has been related to inhibition control, this task has been related to inhibition control, conservatives have a greater need for cognitive consistency, that need should be related to inhibition control, etc. let’s test for a difference in acc activation, then speculate as to whether differences in politics reflect differences in inhibition control.
    3) the two groups probably differ on lots of variables. This means that I can’t know how important a difference in acc activation on this task is without respect to their differences on all the other variables. The only reason we make this argument is b/c it fits w/some other theory, not really from the data.
    4) As you said at the bottom of your post, its uncomfortable that many studies are treating liberal/conservative like some sort of personality variable. Its often calculated by one self-report item (political orientation). I would pose a further challenge- that if this study was simply behavioral, i.e. that liberals and conservatives did the go-nogo and they looked at group differences, that the study would go largely unnoticed, and most people might not be very impressed- that should tell you something. And what does it matter that something in my brain is activated when I’m thinking (seems like I don’t need a study for that), what’s the message being sent by saying that political ideology doesn’t just reflect differences in inhibition, they reflect differences in brain activation related to inhibition?
    5) it may seem that I’m being too harsh on brain studies, but the fact is that there results seem to suggest that conservatives are deficient in some way at the level of brain activity. Anytime you have a result like that, especially given the fact that most researchers have liberal ideologies and lay theories about who is more intelligent, I think you have to hold it to a higher bar before making any waves, even speculative ones. Both from a scientific and a practical perspective, b/c if conservatives are the way the study says they are, then they will really tear a study like this apart.

    apologize for any non-sensical comments, must run.

  3. Tage, if you found a difference in the way members of two groups performed a task, though both groups scored the same on the task, would you dismiss the finding as unimportant?

    I read the above post as reporting differences in the way people with a more, or less, conservative political orientation use brain resources to solve the go-no go task. There is no doubt that the ACC is used for functions other than conflict resolution, but if there are differences in areas of brain activation, whatever the specific task relevant role of the area is, it is being used differently by the two groups.


  4. This is exactly the type of discussion I was hoping we’d have! Tage’s comments are well taken, and as you might gather from my last questions in the post, there are still several questions left unanswered (but as with all science, we need to start somewhere and then figure out where there are holes and build from there).

    In response to Tage’s questions:
    1) Yes, if I’m interpreting the question correctly, both the go-no go task (measure of ability to inhibit) and political measures were taken in the same study.

    2) I’m not sure exactly where you are going here. I think what you may be asking about is a reverse inference issue (the bad thing that people do in a lot of brain studies where they say “in our task, we saw activity in region X, which has previously been associated with psychological process Y, therefore our task is also based on psychological process Y.” This is certainly something to be cautious of, but in this case they don’t make conclusive claims of this type (you’ll note in the quote above they say that this data is “consistent with” the hypothesis that liberals and conservatives may use different mechanisms in tasks related to self control). I appreciate your skepticism (and I admit that I am also skeptical that this is something inherent to liberals and conservative, and not a third variable as you point out in question 3). However, I would also argue that for science to move forward, we need to start somewhere and so the real test will come from whether these results are replicated and consistent with studies that get at the question from other angles.
    4. I disagree. I think the results would be interesting with or without brain data, and as Adi points out, brain data just give us another way of look at how people work.
    5. In the conclusion of the article, the authors list several different situations in which the type of processing observed in each group might be advantageous. I don’t think that this is meant to suggest that one way is better or worse, just that at the level of how information is being processed, the two groups differ.

    As a final point, I’d like to say that one of the reasons that I posted this is because it raises some controversial ideas, which I think makes for good discussion. I encourage people to go check out the original paper if there is interest, and to continue to bring up questions and concerns!

  5. Pingback: Science Sounds Like This » Blog Archive » Writing about brain science

  6. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  7. Adi,
    I need to preface this by saying that I still haven’t read the paper and so I don’t know if there actually was a difference in task performance between liberals and conservatives. So consider this to be my academic ideological response to the potentially hypothetical scenario of task performance being the same across groups, as you asked me about. You asked what I would do if I “found a difference in the way members of two groups performed a task, though both groups scored the same on the task.” I don’t like this analogy b/c in a behavioral experiment, I can be sure about the causal chain (i.e. the ‘way members performed a task’) whereas in brain scanning, all I have is a correlation between activation and performance. The answer to how I interpret this brain study is that I don’t dismiss it, but I am fairly critical, and as its a sensitive topic, I think we should be very careful about our claims.

    Why? I think your response highlights the issue- “I read the above post as reporting differences in the way people with a more, or less, conservative political orientation use brain resources to solve the go-no go task.”

    The problem is that I don’t think that’s how most people read the study, I don’t think that’s how the study is sold, and I don’t think that’s how we presented the study on our site. The inspiration for the study was proposed personality differences between conservatives and liberals in their cognitive styles such as need for structure and acceptance of ambiguity. The researchers assumed that these differences would be reflected in a go-no go task. Thus, although emily mentioned the researchers don’t make conclusive claims, the power of the paper is in its implications, which go beyond your point. If there is no performance difference between liberals and conservatives on the task, then connecting the task (and by association, the ACC) to phenomena like cognitive consistency and need for structure is problematic b/c those are phenomena where there is a proposed difference between liberals and conservatives. Rather, my conclusion from these results would be that on a behavioral level, the go-no go task doesn’t seem to be reflective of more or less structured and flexible cogntive styles. Now, if the researchers picked the go-no go task b/c previous research had shown a correlation between task performance and cogntive style, then you have a whole other level of problem either in those studies that reported the relation, this study that didn’t find the relation, or the studies that reported the relation between political orientation and cogntive style.

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