Posted by: shoji | September 11, 2007

Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism

Francis Crick, best known to the general public for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, was also a preeminent theoretical neuroscientist. For the past several decades and until his death in 2004, he thought deeply about the “neuronal correlate of consciousness”.

In his and his long-time collaborator Christof Koch‘s written words:

We can state bluntly the major question that neuroscience must first answer. It is probably that an any moment some active neuronal processes in your head correlate with consciousness, while others do not: what is the difference between them? In particular, are the neurons involved of any particular neuronal type? What is special (if anything) about their connections? And what is special (if anything) about their way of firing?… Whenever some information is represented in the neuronal correlate of consciousness it is represented in consciousness. (Emphasis theirs; Cereb Cortex. 1998 Mar;8(2):97-107.)

In the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience, David Amodio and colleagues propose a neuronal correlate of consciousness for conservatism versus liberalism. This characteristic of conservatism or liberalism is inherited (at least to some extent) and resides, in part, within the brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex.

The anterior cingulate cortex detects when a “habitual response tendency is mismatched with responses required by the current situation”. The scientists found: “Stronger conservatism (versus liberalism) was associated with less neurocognitive sensitivity to response [to mismatched response].”

The beauty of this result to me is how the proposed model is entirely consistent with the tendency of conservatism to favor tradition and gradual change. The space between psychology and systems neuroscience continues to get smaller.

Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism – Nature Neuroscience
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.



  1. RE: neuro correlates in libs and conservatives:
    A basic scientific design flaw invalidates this study: the authors used a so-called single item criterion, thus allowing the subjects to self-select. This is only okay if one is testing for the validity of self-selection as a dependent variable that changes in an experimental condition. Here they basically used the self-report as an independent variable and just assumed it was valid. This is hopelessly naive from the point of view of social psychologists who understand the social nature of attitude clusters.

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