ProCon has put together a list of 16 studies on the differences between conservatives and liberals in terms of their brains and their personalities. This is an area that fascinates me and some of these specific results are very interesting. For instance:
1. Conservatives spend more time looking at unpleasant images, and liberals spend more time looking at pleasant images.
“We report evidence that individual-level variation in people’s physiological and attentional responses to aversive and appetitive stimuli are correlated with broad political orientations. Specifically, we find that greater orientation to aversive stimuli tends to be associated with right-of-centre and greater orientation to appetitive (pleasing) stimuli with left-of-centre political inclinations.”
Michael D. Dodd, PhD, Amanda Balzer, PhD, Carly Jacobs, MA, Michael Gruszczynski, MA, Kevin B. Smith, PhD, and John R. Hibbing, PhD, “The Left Rolls with the Good; The Right Confronts the Bad. Physiology and Cognition in Politics,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Mar. 5, 2012
The link in the quote is to a PDF of the actual paper. That paper also says that recent research is finding many other similar patterns:
A growing body of research finds that political orientations vary with an array of broader constructs such as personality traits, moral foundations, core values, baseline neural structures, neural activation in response to unexpected stimuli, self-reported sensitivity to threat, tendency to perceive threat in faces, physiological response to threat, sensitivity to disgust and possibly even genetics.
Hair-trigger autonomic nervous systems generate rapid and elevated physiological responses to aversive stimuli and chronic sensitivity to violations of security, purity and order may rivet attention on the problematic aspects of the environment. Conversely, heightened physiological response to appetitive stimuli and a chronic craving of new experiential pleasures may lead an individual to devote more attention to appealing aspects of the environment. Whatever the source of these biological and psychological predispositions, people may accordingly self-select, often
subconsciously, into situations likely to match their physiological and cognitive biases, according to the approach-avoidant spectrum. For example, those whose physiology responds strongly to violations of their preferences for protection, purity and order and are known to devote high levels of attention to such violations, are likely to take steps in their personal lives to avoid situations in which they encounter violations of security, purity and order. In other words, these individuals may be more likely to display the personal values of tradition, conformity and security. On the other hand, those whose physiology responds strongly to stimuli portraying desirable situations and
experiences, and/or those who devote relatively high levels of attention to appetitive stimuli may be more likely to subscribe to the personal values of hedonism, stimulation and self-direction…
This theory is supported by recent evidence that individuals’ personal values correlate with their political values as well as evidence that people’s political values are related to their motivations in making moral decisions. Those who, in relative terms, stress minimizing harm and maximizing equality tend to be left-of-centre in their political beliefs and those who stress purity and authority tend to be right-of-centre
This all seems quite intuitive. Those who are more fearful of new experiences and prone to reacting very strongly to threats are more likely to cling to tradition, routine and authority and therefore more likely to be politically conservative. And there appears to be some evidence that this is not merely due to one’s upbringing but is at least partly controlled by genetics and brain structure, though, quite frankly, I’m not really capable of evaluating the validity of those kinds of studies (many of them linked to above).
2. Reliance on quick, efficient, and “low effort” thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
“…[P]olitical conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking. When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient; these conditions promote conservative ideology… low-effort thought might promote political conservatism because its concepts are easier to process, and processing fluency increases attitude endorsement.
Four studies support our assertion that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism… Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural.”
Scott Eidelman, PhD, Christian S. Crandall, PhD, Jeffrey A. Goodman, PhD, and John C. Blanchar, “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2012
Now here we must be careful to avoid confirmation bias. It’s all too easy to accept such conclusions because they are in line with what we would like to believe about our political opponents and to overlook possible flaws in, and reasonable objections to, that research. And this is a rather unusual study. Here’s the actual abstract:
The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. In Study 1, alcohol intoxication was measured among bar patrons; as blood alcohol level increased, so did political conservatism (controlling for sex, education, and political identification). In Study 2, participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than their no-load counterparts. In Study 3, time pressure increased participants’ endorsement of conservative terms. In Study 4, participants considering political terms in a cursory manner endorsed conservative terms more than those asked to cogitate; an indicator of effortful thought (recognition memory) partially mediated the relationship between processing effort and conservatism. Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.
There are many possible objections to this methodology, which, perhaps ironically, I’m not going to take the time and effort to spell out here. But I think this and other studies are likely on the right track, if only because they seem to confirm what I have observed for a very long time. When I have more time, I intend to dive into as many of these studies as I can because this whole issue really fascinates me.