Yet Another Study “Proves” Liberal, Conservative Brain Differences

Labour believes the government should tax and spend. Tories believe the government should spend and tax. Labour works with businesses to create new regulations to keep unwanted businesses in their place. Tories create new regulations for businesses to boost their, but strangely not others’, production.

Labour members to a man, or woman!, are caring and compassionate. Tories, girl and boy, say they love us. Labour wants to keep us safe from everything. Tories too. Both Labour and Tory agree that the solution to problems of government can be fixed by new and larger government.

Science has examined exhaustively members from both parties and have concluded the only noticeable difference between the two groups is where they sit in Parliament. This isn’t a local phenomenon. Swap Democrat for Labour and Republican for Tory and nothing changes, except Parliament becomes Congress.

This solid, low p-value-verified research applies equally to registered party members as well as elected officials.

Which is what makes the new study by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics (no, I’m not kidding) at the University of Exeter, so strange.

Schreiber hooked 82 WEIRD people up to magnetic phrenology machines, themselves wired to computers, and had these people play a gambling game. He looked up voter registrations to discover the party to which each individual registered. He found “striking differences in the participants’ brain activity during the risk-taking task.”

Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness.

However, Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ system.

The results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk.

The brain areas might be “associated” with certain behavior, but they are not certainly predictive of it. The results may “suggest” differences, but they do not prove them.

These studies are showing up increasing often, each as tedious as the last and all suffering from the same weaknesses. Layers of uncertainty are ignored. Quick examples: Yours Truly isn’t registered with any party. Others switch. Surprisingly, there are more than just two ways to think of the world (this news hasn’t yet reached researchers). The “associated” brain areas are statistical findings and not categorical. The party affiliations and political philosophy of the 82 WEIRD people have little or nothing to do with gambling games.

These are just WEIRD people who in college tend to group together for reasons other than political philosophy. The file-drawer problem lurks. Statistical significance was found in only one task: the more tasks, the more likely a false positive. Subjectivity arises in interpreting fMRI results, which brings up confirmation bias. The “fight-or-flight” systems might have activated in the brighter students (“Get me the hell out of this nutty experiment!”). The “self-awareness” regions could have said, “Note to self: there are better ways to earn fifty bucks.” I could go on and on. I won’t. I’m too tired.

What’s worrying is how academics are ready to pathologize political behavior. “He voted for Romney? Must have a whithered amygdala. It’s always the amygdala. Amygdala, amygdala, amygdala. If we could treat these patients in the womb, why, they’d come out with vibrant, strong amygdalas. And vote the proper way.”


  1. What is most worrying is the researchers think social and self-awareness is most important. That came up in “Abortion to build a master race” post. This may not be surprising, since people who are social are much easier to control and bend than those who are not. Plus, on the fight or flight side involving the amygdala, if flight occurs, that’s fine. If fight does, then what?

    I certainty think your “Note to self” comment could easily have explained the fight or flight response in the experiment!

  2. William Sears

    These studies make it seem that the academic left is desperate for justification, in order to counter an ingrained inferiority complex. As to the lack of real political difference between Democrats and Republicans (or Grits and Tories) see the latest posting at the Mises Institute:

    I particularly like the Oscar Wilde quote “when speaking one’s mind becomes more than a duty; it becomes a positive pleasure”. This could become your new motto, Briggs.

  3. Noblesse Oblige

    A few more years and Conservatives will be ready for the asylums…. Soviet style. l

  4. Andy

    Is it not strange that they always point out that the opponent politics is the one that is pathological?

    Strange indeed.

  5. Joey H

    Is it not strange that they always point out that the opponent politics is the one that is pathological?

    It’s actually a fairly effective strategy. If you have people (media and educators) repeating the lie for you enough, people start to question their belief as a gut reaction. Furthermore, it becomes less socially acceptable to have that viewpoint, because it’s associated with, “inferior pathology.” In a way it’s a natural progression from demeaning your opponent, “Conservatives are stupid,” becomes, “Conservatives are stupid because their brains are inferior.”

  6. JJD

    So then, I wonder whether the dead fish would turn out to be a Republican or a Democrat? Remember the MRI experiment with the dead fish?

  7. “r-selected liberals, K-selected conservatives”

    On the other hand, it looks like Sarah Palin and relatives tend to be r-strategists.

    On the gripping hand, it’s a mistake to generalize from one example.

  8. Jonathan D

    Briggs, congratulations on convincing quite a few commentors that the paper does anything like pathologising political behaviour. Sheri immediately concludes that they consider social and self-awareness more important, but seeing as the researcher mentioned claims to be a Republican, Andy’s claim suggests that he thinks it pathological. Funnily enough, neither the article nor the paper itself say anything positive or negative about either way of thinking.

    Can’t you reject the paper without adding to it? (At the very least get it the right way round.) It’s just a pity people will probably pay more attention to the pathology remark than to the all-too-rarely-acknowledged fact that there are more than two ways to think.

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