Is conversation between Conservatives and Liberals possible?

Conversations between two opposing political viewpoints are often strained and difficult. This article attempts to address the reasons why that is so from a neuro-anatomical perspective.

Is conversation between Conservatives and Liberals possible?

“The middle path makes me wary. . . . But in the middle of my life, I am coming to see the middle path as a walk with wisdom where conversations of complexity can be found, that the middle path is the path of movement. . . . In the right and left worlds, the stories are largely set. . . . We become missionaries for a position . . . practitioners of the missionary position. Variety is lost. Diversity is lost. Creativity is lost in our inability to make love with the world.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, Leap

Is it possible for a very liberal Democrat to learn to speak conservativese? The long standing prohibition at family gatherings against raising topics relating to: Politics, Religion, or Money is well founded and with good reason. Many families regret the things said during disquisitions at the Thanksgiving dinner table regarding these topics because of the conflict they engender. “Uncle Paul said what to Aunt Laura?” “Aunt Jeanne told Aunt Karen to what with her opinions?” Siblings fight and argue this is nothing new but has anyone ever given any consideration that perhaps it’s the actual structure of the brain, the neuroanatomy of an individual that is influencing that person’s political orientation and response to a given discussion?

A recent article by David Amodio, John Jost, Sarah Master, and Cindy Yee, published in Nature Neuroscience entitled,”Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism” would lend credence to that theory. “Political scientists and psychologists have long noted differences in the cognitive and motivational profiles of liberals and conservatives in the US and elsewhere. Across dozens of behavioral studies, conservatives have been found to be more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making, as indicated by higher average scores on psychological measures of personal needs for order, structure and closure. Liberals, by contrast, report higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity, and greater openness to new experiences on psychological measures. Given that these associations between political orientation and cognitive styles have been shown to be heritable, evident in early childhood, and relatively stable across the lifespan, we hypothesized that political orientation may be associated with individual differences in a basic neurocognitive mechanism involved broadly in self-regulation.”

In addition to the Amodio study in 2011, another study was conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai’s group at University College London published in Current Biology. They found a correlation between variations in political views and differences in brain structures. In a convenience sample of students from the University College in London the sample group was given MRI scans on the brains of 90 volunteers who had indicated their political orientation. The students indicated their orientation on a five point scale ranging from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’. The results were very telling. Those individuals who reported ‘conservative’ political views tended to have larger amygdalae, a structure in the temporal lobes responsible primarily for processing memory and emotions.  Those who identified as more ‘Liberal’ tended to have a larger volume of tissue in the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex), a structure of the brain associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information.

So from both research studies subjects who self align with liberal views tend to have larger ACC areas of the brain, while those who have self aligned with conservative views tend to have larger amygdalae. So what do these different areas of the brain do?

A study entitled “Anterior cingulate conflict monitoring and adjustments in control” by

J.G. Kerns, J.D. Cohen JD, A.W. MacDonald 3rd, R. Y. Cho, V. A.  Stenger, and C. S. Carter from the Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211, USA demonstrates that ACC conflict-related activity predicts both greater prefrontal cortex activity and adjustments in behavior, supporting a role of ACC conflict monitoring in the engagement of cognitive control.

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

The ACC has several jobs that it performs for us, including error detection, conflict monitoring, and evaluating or weighing different competing choices. It is important for emotion regulation and cognitive control, what has been called ‘executive functioning’ or controlling the level of emotional arousal or response to an emotional event to allow your cognitive processes to work most effectively.

When humans are exposed to a large amount of ambiguous or conflicting information, the ACC functions as a filter of sorts, separating the incoming fragments of information and assign them value. Individuals suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia for example, typically have a poorly functioning ACC; they have difficulty differentiating relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, assigning equal weight to all of them. Humans are adept at noticing patterns in their environment, but you need to know which ones are meaningful. The ACC helps to decide which patterns are worth investigating and which ones are just noises. If your brain assigned relevance to every detectable pattern, it would be problematic. We sometimes refer to this as having paranoid delusions. You need that weeding out process to think rationally.

The ability to sort out relevant patterns from irrelevant patterns logically is difficult to do when heavy emotions are involved. Extreme emotional duress inhibits the ability of an individual to analyze a set of data, or read a story and pick out the main points. It’s incredibly difficult to think logically when you’re strongly emoting.  This is why the regulation of emotions is related to cognitive control and error detection, considered cognitive flexibility.

So that’s the ACC. Now let’s look at the amygdala.

The Amygdala

The amygdala receives inputs from all senses as well as visceral inputs. Since the amygdala is very important in emotional learning it is not surprising that visceral inputs are a major input source. Visceral inputs come from the hypothalamus, septal area, orbital cortex, and parabrachial nucleus. Olfactory sensory information comes from the olfactory bulb. Auditory, visual and somatosensory information comes from the temporal and anterior cingulate cortices.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, the area of the brain associated with emotions. The amygdala is important for formation of emotional memories and learning, such as fear conditioning, as well as memory consolidation. Emotions significantly impact how we process events; when we encounter something and have a strong emotional reaction, either positive or negative, that memory is strengthened.

Persons with a larger or more active amygdala tend to have stronger emotional reactions to objects and events, and process information initially through that pathway. They would be more likely swayed towards a belief if it touched them on an emotional level.

Those with a larger amygdala are also thought to experience and express more empathy, perhaps explaining why one of the features of psychopathy is a smaller amygdala. This is not to say that someone with a smaller amygdala is a psychopath, it’s just that they are probably less emotionally reactive or receptive.

On the other hand, while emotional sensitivity can be a good thing, too much emotionality can have negative consequences. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder, characterized by poor and uncontrollable emotion regulation, features a hyperactive amygdala.

While I’ve doggedly tried to encourage a dialog between my brethren from the Right and myself, a self described socialist and liberal democrat, I must concede defeat and utter failure. I joined a Facebook group designated as an open discussion page. It is monitored and managed by a conservative resident of a small town south west of Boston, MA. Most, but not all of the members of this group were conservative Republicans. All went well for the first month or so with several online disquisitions on a range of topics from gun control to the possible third US involvement in Iraq. The resulting posts were for the most part a heated but respectful exchange of opinions. A turning point was reached when I posted a mime about two volatile subjects Immigration and abortion. The message content of the mime read something to the effect; “Everyone who yells and screams outside an abortion clinic should be required to take responsibility for a refugee child being held along our boarder.” Well I was accused of calling people racists when I posted the comment “perhaps the vociferous cries of those living along the border for the immediate deportation of these child refugees have more to do with the color of the children’s skin than the illegality of their refugee status.” It was suggested by the moderator of the page that perhaps I should not post such material. I promptly left the group but with a distasteful feeling of surrender.

I’ve also experienced what’s called Confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor information that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. I frequent Congresswoman Niki Tsongas’ Facebook page because, well she’s my Congresswomen and the Representative for Acton, MA. I have witnessed on several occasions the most severe, obnoxious and critical posts I have ever had the displeasure to read; some of the stuff is just vulgar. I refer to these individuals as online trolls. It is easy to be brave sitting behind the relative safety of the keyboard and I’ve felt OK confronting some of the more strident commentators in open debate, using the civilized method of online discussion: one comment backed up with supporting data, material from a research paper or an article from a publication, no ranting. Never have I been listened to nor have any of my well documented (if I do say so myself) facts been acknowledged, accepted or in any manner respected; foolish me.

I believe that it is something referred to as Biased search1, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence),or  belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false)2, or even the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation3 (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations) that is causal in the conservatives’, that I’ve encountered, insistence on their views correctness in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. But where does the rudeness come from? Why the derogatory comments?

A series of experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Later work re-interpreted these results as a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In certain situations, this tendency can bias people’s conclusions. Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information. Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way.

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”4

The above quote is attributed to Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger. He could have been writing about the strident opinions of those individuals who ardently deny human responsibility in climate change, despite overwhelming scientific data to support global warming and its human causes. This quote was made by Dr. Festinger in the 1950, describing a famous case study in psychology.

Affect, as a key insight of modern neuroscience states, “Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion.” The two are indivisible and how we feel, either negatively or positively about people, things, and ideas arrives more rapidly than our conscious thought. We feel emotions long before we are aware of having them at all, with in milliseconds. Early hominids were required to react to stimuli in their environment very quickly as a survival technique; the faster our ancestors reacted to a threat the longer they survived to pass on their genetic code to their offspring. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close.

We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”

I dated a woman from the Mid-west who held strong Christian Fundamentalists faith values and opinions, when I stated my belief that the world was billions of years old and that humans evolved over millennia from apes, the comment caused a severe reaction beyond all proportion to the context of our conversation.  We subsequently only dated for a very short period but the interaction left me changed in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time but in retrospect makes perfect sense. My comments and manner of speech threatened my conservative friend’s deeply held religious beliefs.

Political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University explains why my comments about evolution resulted in so visceral a reaction, it was a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

So my friend certainly could be referred to as having a conservative viewpoint in her beliefs and I would assume, though there is no empirical proof that she was in possession of a large amygdala and a less developed ACC because she certainly fit the profile. I ultimately had to obtain a Court Restraining Order against her for threatening actions against my 90 year old mother; but that has nothing to do with the subject written about here, at least I don’t believe it does.

There are only so many times that I can provide articles from respected economists that refutes the flawed principles of trickledown economics; I personally question the validity of Capitalism as an economic system that provides for the wellbeing of the entire population, oh it’s proven its worth to a select few but left behind the majority and done little in the way of equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity in the US.

There are limits to the number of times I can say that President Obama is in fact a US citizen and not the anti-Christ from Saudi Arabia. I’m so tired of trying to convince conservatives that a woman is more than capable of making decisions concerning her own body. I’m equally tired of waiting for the far Right to evolve and finally concede that no one is free until we all are free, to love and marry whomever we choose to love and marry; that the LBGT community needs the protection of the law in the workplace as do women who are attempting to break the glass ceiling or receive equal remuneration for equal labor. While I’m mentioning protection, how many times have I presented data that proves beyond a doubt that Climate Change is real, caused by human activity and that more and stronger, not less or weaker, Government control and oversight is required to combat its effects? Perhaps the conservative voices in our midst would like to leave this up to the Courts or Corporate America to resolve, when they’re actually declaring themselves American and not tax dodging by moving their headquarters overseas.

The arguments are getting stale but no less true that being poor is no less deserving of respect than being wealthy; that living in poverty doesn’t mean that you’re ‘less than’ or that because your income is subsidized you should be subjected to random and degrading drug testing before you’re able to use your CBT card to purchase food for your children. The discussions about earned benefits, Medicare, and all the Social safety nets that the American people have fought for and been granted by liberal politicians are getting old. I could go on because there are many who hold on to conservative ideas that are in dire need of re-evaluation.

The bottom line here is that I’m questioning the sanity of my pursuit of engaging in a political dialog with conservatives, I’m seriously considering obtaining a divorce from the Republican Party; so if a separation between the Right and Left were possible I’d be for it. It occurs to me that perhaps I’ve triggered a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.

Is there a fundamental difference in the physical brain between Liberals and Conservatives? Are we physically different? A difference in the structure of the brain that causes us to think in opposition to one another, to be diametrically opposed in belief purely based on our neuroanatomy is possible. Does brain structure determine our beliefs, or do our beliefs change our brain structure? The Amodio study (Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism, 2007) and the Kanai/Colin Firth study (Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, 2011), found similar results when comparing the neuroanatomy of liberals and conservatives.

The Amodio study demonstrates that liberalism is linked with greater activity in the ACC, while the Kanai study found that liberalism is linked with increased gray matter volume or a larger ACC, as shown in MRI scans. Additionally, the Kanai study found that conservatism is linked with increased volume of the right amygdala.

So? What does all that mean? Liberals will come together with data and strong, logical arguments, and conservatives will hammer away about family values and stability.

Conservatives are more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, would tend to process information initially using emotion. According to the Kanai study, Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala.

So, when faced with an ambiguous situation, conservatives would tend to process the information initially with a strong emotional response. This would make them less likely to lean towards change, and more likely to prefer stability. Stability means more predictability, which means more expected outcomes, and less of a trigger for anxiety.

Liberals, though, tend toward unpredictability. They don’t mind change, and in fact, they prefer it. They seek it out. This personality type would likely choose “change” over “stability” just because they tend to be more novelty-seeking by nature. The fact that they have a more prominent ACC helps them to deal with radically changing situations, still find the salient points, all without the emotion getting in the way. These individuals are the compartmentalizers, the logic-driven ones, while the conservatives are the ones driven by emotion and empathy.

“And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.” From Mother Jones article (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=2)

“You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.” (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=4)

It also occurs to me as I write this article that it is entirely possible that the Left needs the Right as much as conservatives need liberals, for balance. There used to be this thing in politics that has now become a dirty word that thing is ‘compromise’, but you don’t get to compromise by digging your heals in and refusing to discuss the possibilities that your opinions might just be flawed.

Dennis G Caristi

David Perkins, a geneticist, coined the term “myside bias” referring to a preference for “my” side of an issue. (Baron 2000, p. 195)

Judgment under uncertainty : heuristics and biases

Daniel Kahneman; Paul Slovic; Amos Tversky

Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, ©1982.

Chapman, L (1967). “Illusory correlation in observational report”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science

How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.

—By Chris Mooney| May/June 2011 Issue

One thought on “Is conversation between Conservatives and Liberals possible?

  1. My brain is liberal, although I am strong in empathy and emotions. I understand the futility in trying to inform with facts and science, and there must be another way to save the earth and its life! This I believe is at stake!

    Liked by 1 person

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