Recently, my blog about the plight of women prisoners in Arizona received several comments connecting the horrible treatment of women imprisoned for white-color crimes and prostitution to the guilt of Jody Arias, who viciously killed her ex-boyfriend five years ago. Some of the messages seemed to follow the traditional faulty syllogism of (il)logic: Arias is a bad person, and Arias is a prisoner—therefore prisoners are bad people. People who think like this attribute the actions of a few to the whole.
Recently, studies about the difference between conservatives and liberals have proliferated. One essay, “Differences in Conservative and Liberal Brains,” cites 16 peer-review studies in describing thought-processing differences between self-identified conservatives and liberals.
Conservatives spend more time looking at unpleasant images, and liberals spend more time looking at pleasant images.
Reliance on quick, efficient, and “low effort” thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
Conservatives react more strongly than liberals to disgusting images, such as a picture of someone eating worms.
Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).
Conservatives have stronger motivations than liberals to preserve purity and cleanliness.
Conservatives and liberals react similarly to positive incentives, but conservatives have greater sensitivity to negative stimuli.
Conservatism is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while liberalism is focused on advancing positive outcomes. Thus conservatism seeks to regulate society via inhibition, and liberalism seeks to act in the interests of social justice.
Genetics influence political attitudes during early adulthood and beyond.
Compared to liberals, conservatives are less open to new experiences and learn better from negative stimuli than positive stimuli.
Conservatives tend to have a stronger reaction to threatening noises and images than liberals.
Liberals are more open-minded and creative whereas conservatives are more orderly and better organized.
When faced with a conflict, liberals are more likely than conservatives to alter their habitual response when cues indicate it is necessary. Liberals are more willing to accept risk with a tendency to seek out novelty and uncertainty. These characteristics come from the larger anterior cingulate cortex, the region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity. The difference in the liberals’ brains means that they are more likely to accept analytical data and scientific proof, and to reason problems out.
Conservatives are far more afraid than liberals, perhaps due to the conservatives’ larger right amygdale, active during times of fear and anxiety. Fear keeps people from change and learning while magnifying threats. conservatives have far more intense physical reactions to threatening stimuli. Conservatives want a huge system of national defense; in the United States, any threat is considered terrorism except for real threats like domestic violence and sexual assault.
Being fearful may enlarge the amygdale–the more fearful, the greater the increase. The larger amygdale means the brain’s owner is more emotion-based and more resistant to change. The research about conservatives’ fear explains why there have strong anti-immigration and pro-segregation attitudes. Anyone outside their group cannot be accepted, according to their brain processing.
Conservatives’ fear of the world makes them pro-gun, mostly religious, more hostile to immigrants and all other ethnic minorities, fearful of attacks from other nations, anti-government involvement in their lives, pro-family, anti-welfare (because they see the poor as parasites on success), and pro-wealth. In addition, they hate complexity and compromise.
On the other side of the coin, liberals are more optimistic about the world, consider government as a vehicle for solving problems and improving well-being, want citizen protection left to police, less religious, more welcoming to immigrants, rely more on science and education to solve problems, favor negotiation and consensus-building over wars, willingly pay taxes to improve people’s lives, and are less interested in family ties for personal protection. They also support welfare programs for the poor to reduce social problems, crime, and child poverty; are suspicious of wealth that is inherited or obtained through unethical business practices; and feel that concentrating resources in the hands of the one percent impoverishes everyone else thereby undermining social trust.
One study successfully guessed the party affiliation of a large majority of the subjects. Determining the risk-taking behavior during a gambling experiment monitored by brain scans let the researchers guess those on the right and on the left for 83 percent of the participants. The risks were not necessarily different, but the brain activity varied.
Extreme conservatives, between 1 and 4 percent, have an even larger problem than the standard conservatives. Because their amygdalae are extremely small or inactive, they have absolutely no empathy. These people come under the classification of sociopaths or even psychopaths.
Sociopaths know exactly what they are doing and are very aware of how they are functioning socially. Their characteristics include glibness and superficial charm, narcissism, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative behaviors, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, pleasure in cruelty, need for stimulation, tendency to boredom, parasitic behavior, poor behavioral control, impulsivity, irresponsibility, sexual promiscuity, multiple marriages, and criminal versatility.
These people congregate in leadership roles in both the private and public sector, CEOs and politicians in particular. Sociopaths study people who possess emotions that they can best exploit, and fear is at the top of the list. The sociopathic leader knows how to push all the right buttons of the most fearful and then make false promises of reassurance to get their loyalty. Ayn Rand was a top example of a sociopath—an empowering figure for the frightened masses who leveraged their insecurities and fears to great personal advantage and aggrandizement.
While liberals try to lead with reason and collaboration, conservatives control the debate because they attack the person, not the problem. They deny reason in favor of emotion because they are controlled by the amygdale, the “white matter” fight-or-flight center of the brain. Liberals try to process the problem through their “gray matter,” the anterior cingulate cortex.
Capitalism today is a prime example of sociopathy in its concept of “I’ve got mine so screw you.” More and more people suffer because of the concentration of wealth and power at the very top. Any attempt to move this to a greater sense of equity brings howls of class warfare, socialism, and government overreach from the conservatives. Any move toward taking away even one of the wealthy class advantages brings more howls of “unfair treatment.”
Homelessness, poverty, hunger, bad health—none of these is the responsibility of the conservatives.
The positive side of this research is that education may help conservatives become more open and positive. Instruction in history, critical thinking, literature, and art can develop a person’s mind. A greater diversity of experiences in the world and exposure to different cultures can also lessen the fear. Brain change was proved more than ten years ago when brain scans showed the growth of London cab drivers’ hippocami as they spent more time driving and therefore learned more about the city.
The other side of the coin is that increased fear increases the size of the amydala, making people more and more conservative. That’s the reason that conservative leaders operate on the hysteria of fear. Their mantra is “They’re coming after you! Be afraid—be very afraid!” They also know that education changes people: that’s the reason that they try to control or block it.
These studies may upset conservatives. But they don’t believe in science so none of them will believe any of this information.
[Additional Note: A recent study shows that Republicans lie three times as much to the people of the United States as the Democrats do! More sociopathic behavior.]