It’s often said that politicians need their head examined, but contrary to recent reports, you’re likely to find out more about whether they wear a hair piece than whether their brains ‘dictate’ their politics.
The fact that there is a brain difference between people with left-wing and right-wing views is hardly news. Because every view we have is supported by the brain, by definition they’ll be a difference somewhere – just as there’s a brain difference between people who prefer London to Paris, strawberry to vanilla, or Britney to Christina.
What is interesting about this new study, is that the researchers have found a difference in the ability to inhibit habitual responses in a ‘detect a letter’ task which was linked to brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC – a deep mid-line area in the frontal lobes.
Activity in this area correlates with ‘conflict monitoring’ – the ability to detect a conflict between completing mental demands.
It forms part of the brain’s cognitive control and self-regulation system and when it is triggered, the ACC calls in reinforcements to focus attention – in the form of the upper surface areas of the frontal lobes.
So the study found that conservatives showed less ACC activation and were more likely to respond when they weren’t supposed to – in other words, were more habitual in their responding.
Cue media pantwetting about brain types ‘dictating’ politics, conservatives being ‘rigid’ and liberals being more ‘flexible’.
Most of this is over-interpretation and, needless to say, the study only reports an association, so it’s just as likely that preferring conservative politics leads to more habitual responding.
Cognitive Daily have a great analysis of the study and I really recommend it if you want to avoid the hype and actually see what’s genuinely interesting about it.
It’s one of their wonderfully clear explanations and has a demo you can try yourself. Importantly, their pants stay dry throughout.