Understanding Left & Right: It's All About The "W"? genre: Nouveau Thoughts & Polispeak

W & M

Results of a new study intended to gauge the brain differences between liberal and conservatives suggest that it all comes down to the "W''s...and in the case of George W. Bush, it may make perfect sense. All kidding aside, the results offer an intriguing look into understanding the role neurobiology may play in determining one's particular political leanings. Clearly, more research is needed and more will undoubtedly occur.

Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

In a simple experiment reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

While it is difficult to extrapolate from such studies...given my own curiosity with psychology...I decided it might be fun to apply the basic findings of this research to the President and his actions in office. I offer the following thoughts for pondering in that regard.

1. Is there a desire to see M's which can be predicted to lead to the errors when seeing W's?

If conservatives look for consistency, is it possible that the President...when confronted with the aftermath of 9/11...sought to see the connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda even though they likely didn't exist to any substantive degree?

2. If choosing M's is the favored outcome...and M's significantly outnumber W's...then isn't it possible that W's are viewed as threatening rather than just different?

Can the desire for consistency be related to the opposition to gay rights, including same-sex marriage? If one is inclined to seek consistency and to avoid altering existing constructs, then isn't it possible that same-sex marriage elicits an natural averse and/or fearful reaction?

3. If the appearance of W's creates a degree of angst (they don't fit the objective of identifying M's), could that lead to oversimplifications in order to avoid the existence of conflicting data (a strategy emerges to ignore the W's)?

Does the desire for structure and consistency explain the President's success with identifying a few simple campaign phrases and repeating them over and over without deviation...regardless of changing dynamics and/or facts...as opposed to the oppositions more lengthy, nuanced, and potentially shifting campaign rhetoric?

4. If M's represent structure and consistency...that which can be equated with the status quo...do W's therefore come to represent frightening change that is rejected?

Is it possible that the seeming unwillingness to revisit and revise the strategy in Iraq results from a resistance to confronting the conflict that comes when the eventual outcomes fails to match the initial objectives?

5. If M's are identified as the letter of choice, does that lead one to view M's as ideal and therefore create a need to vilify the W's?

Could the Bush administrations inclination to characterize those opposed to the war as unpatriotic, against our troops, and down on America be explained as a need to avoid the conflict which may be created when the validity of U.S. actions are questioned?

I'm sure one could identify other possible links to the study but the above provide ample food for thought. I find the topic fascinating and I hope the research continues to expand. I say as much because I've always felt that a meeting of the minds requires that the participants are able to understand each others way of thinking and the prevailing propensities which may influence how each side interprets the situations and circumstances they encounter.

In the end, the study suggests that right and wrong may be little more than a function of biological structure. While that doesn't offer solutions, it has the potential to begin defusing the animosity which so often accompanies conflicting thoughts and ideas...a shift which could possibly lead to an added willingness to listen and compromise...or at a minimum to disagree without the need to condemn. Wouldn't that be a novel development?

Tagged as: Conservative, George W. Bush, Iraq, Liberal, Neurobiology, Psychology, Same-Sex Marriage

Daniel DiRito | September 10, 2007 | 10:13 AM
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