Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh the Thinks You Can Think!

I've been attempting, over the last few posts, to steer this blog in a different direction. But, like a ship at sea, it doesn't turn on a dime. The majority of what has filled the pages over the past year are not topics of immediate interest to me; rather, as I have said before, they are things I thought about quite a long time ago now, but, due to various factors, felt like they could use a saying in the here and now.

Readership is down, not surprisingly, as I am sure I have offended a number of my initial readers with my perspective on their religious/ spiritual beliefs, or else they've grown tired of my thinly-veiled arrogance or my intellectual pretense. I don't blame them. And it is convenient for me, as it allows me to move in a far more interesting, for me anyway, direction. So while religion/ spirituality will often come up as an example of certain modes of thinking, I hope to avoid it as a central theme from here on out (we'll see how I do.)

What I have been really fascinated by, and the give and take on this blog and others as well as several books and articles I have recently read have fueled this interest, is not what people think so much as why. A large part of the illusion of consciousness is that it convinces us that we are fully autonomous agents, making rational, lucid choices in our own best-interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all walk around fairly convinced that we are liberal or conservative, spiritual or naturalistic, religious or atheistic because We chose this mode of thinking as the best of all possible choices. Not so much. In fact, an overwhelming amount of the thinks we think are decided for us- by other previously or concurrently held ideas, by the personality traits defined by our genes and the influences of the first few years of our life, by the culture around us, by the beliefs of those closest to us, by the historic position of our birth, and many other factors.

Some of these above factors are obvious; someone raised in a Muslim household is overwhelmingly more likely to practice Islam as an adult than Christianity, and vice-versa. And it is becoming pathetically easy in the United States to predict someone's political affiliation based on whether or not they believe in evolution or are terrified of GMOs. Similarly, no matter how much you wanted to, you couldn't accept the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics in 1066 AD. 

And yet, as much as we "know" these facts, we persistently, stubbornly, insist that our own beliefs are rational and autonomous. Now, at this point, we run into a bit of a paradox. For the rest of what I have to say presumes a scientific world-view, as most of the rest of what I refer to is evidence that has been dredged up by the methodical effort of psychologists and neuroscientists. So, if you are someone who rejects this understanding of things, we diverge from the outset. However, I hope you stick around, as you may find it interesting nonetheless.

I am going to approach the rest of this discussion in a linear fashion, as I think it makes it easier to understand, but in reality, I think it is far more circular, a chicken-and-an-egg question, if you will. This may be my own amateur reading of the findings I am discussing, as the authors of the papers I will cite don't seem to think so.

When we are presented with a new idea, or a revision of an old one, there are two essential factors that seem to dictate whether or not we ultimately accept or reject that idea. One is the make-up of the other ideas held in the same brain. This factor, as fascinating as it is, is not the subject of this post. There are, however, many other worthwhile discussions to be found, and although they all use different nomenclatures, they are all essentially talking about the same thing. In an appendix to his seminal work The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins refers to these ideas as "memes" and although there is probably other literature more current than 1976 on the topic, I still find that few people can explain virtually any topic as clearly as he. George Lakoff, in his The Political Mind refers to essentially the same thing as "frames" or "narrative frames" and a good friend of mine also just wrote an interesting post on the same thing (sort of- it is a setup for something else) and he refers to this idea simply as "narrative."

But I actually want to approach this from a different angle today. I happened to be thinking about this one afternoon when I ran across this post (there is a link there- I know they barely show up on the published blog, but I am too lazy to figure out how to change the color of links... sorry :). Chris Mooney and his wife authored a book I read over the summer Unscientific America which was a good read. As you can tell, he wears his political affiliation on his sleeve, which I think gets in the way, because while it is certainly true that there are a number of issues on which the right's denial of the best scientific evidence is ludicrous, and occasionally dangerous (evolution, climate change, etc), there are roughly an equal number of fads on the left (the anti-vaccine movement, the organic fetish and GMO fear) which are equally absurd and equally dangerous.

However, I don't believe the biases of the post's author invalidate the findings that he links to, which is the reason I linked to it above. As you can see, he compiled a number of different studies which attempted to examine the decision-making patterns or personality traits of people who self-identified as liberal or conservative. While political affiliation is just one small aspect of who we are and how/what/why we think what we think, it is an interesting factor to isolate and examine. Also, it should be noted, I used the term "self-identified" above, because almost all of the studies used the same single point measurement, on the same scale (-5= Very Liberal to +5= Very Conservative) to categorize the participants. While this seems a simplistic way to approach a complex issue, this single self-identifying scale has shown to predict someone's voting record with 75+% accuracy, so it's actually a fairly accurate measure for a complex phenomenon. 

I don't expect the reader to slog their way through the several pages of each of the seven studies above, as I did, but I do hope you will at least skim one or two that sound interesting. Also, you can kind of cheat and read the Introduction, skim the Method, and skip to the Discussion, if you trust that authors didn't pull a fast one on you in the middle there. So, for those of you who have a life, I will attempt to briefly summarize the findings and put a bit of my own take on them.

Across each of these studies, the research consistently showed significant differences in both the decision making patterns and (what I can best term) "personality traits" of liberals versus conservatives. Specifically, they found that conservatives (I am just picking one to frame this in), as opposed to liberals, showed:
  • A greater response to negative stimuli, i.e. threatening images or sudden, loud noises. By "greater response" what is meant is more actual reaction in the brain- on a semi-conscious level, this means they are "affected" more by such stimuli.
  • A follow-up study showed that they are more likely to respond to negative stimuli with aggression, either verbal or physical.
  • A greater fear of death and threats.
  • Less likelihood to try new experiences, more likelihood to stick with known positive stimuli, rather than seeking out novel experiences.
You can take each of those bullets above and frame it in the reverse for liberals- less affected by negative images, less likely to respond with aggression, less fear of death or threats, more likely to try new things, even at the risk of a negative experience. 

Admittedly, from my point of view at least, this doesn't paint a terribly flattering picture of conservatives. However, similar studies have found conservatives to be more loyal, more dependable, more duty-bound, which are all positive traits, at least in my mind. So I would like to move past the knee-jerk response that many will have to those statements and discuss them rationally.

You probably noticed the same pattern I did- conservatives are more deeply affected, on an emotional level, by the unknown and by the threatening (which are often the same thing) and their response thus tends to be more emotional. (This fulfills a whole slew of stereotypes, but I will leave it up to you to recall them.) These behavioral patterns identified in these studies do line up with another set of findings mentioned in that link; that conservatives tend to have a thicker amygalda, one of the brain's emotional-response centers, whereas liberals tend to have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which handles uncertainty, nuance and resolves conflicts. In other words, the brains of liberals and conservatives are actually, physically, different.

Further, these brain-differences line up with another study I had run across a year or so ago, (another link there) that found that identifying as liberal and atheist each accounted for roughly a 6 point increase in IQ. (There were actually a bunch of such studies at the same time which all found the same thing, and the first one I read was actually conducted by Christian Republicans, which makes claims of "bias!" less convincing.)  Since IQ is related to an individuals ability to decipher nuance in logic, spatial and linguistic problems, this finding of the thickness of the ACC makes a lot of sense. Further, coming to atheism as an ideological stance requires the cognitive ability to resolve the logical conflicts inherent in any religious belief. In contrast, a brain with a thinner ACC is more capable of holding on to two mutually contradictory propositions, such as "God is Good," and "Sinners are punished in Hell for all Eternity."

Well, my wife is shuffling me out the door to our nephew's birthday so I have to wrap this up, and I would rather get it published. Anyway, I hope you can see my point. (And it is not, simply, that liberals and atheists are smarter than religious conservatives... if you have an issue with that, take it up with the people behind those studies, not me.) My point is twofold. One, that as much as we like to hope that our ideological convictions are made from a purely-rational, fully-conscious place, they are actually far more like our tastes in food- they are shaped by our genes and the environment we are raised in, and are only changed with sustained, deliberate effort.  Two, the next time you are in a pointless shouting match with someone over an irresolveable issue, try to remember that their brain is probably just shaped different than yours.


  1. Read the first three and the study they cite concerning genetic inheritance of political ideas (alford et al) and found them quite fascinating.

    While it's a base metaphor, seeing the sections of the brain as muscles or skin seems to be helpful here. Engaging in certain activities will (usually) increase the strength and stamina of certain muscle groups; needing to engage in certain mental activities might increase resource flow to the sections responsible for such activities.

    Similarly (as you well know), one develops callouses (or nerve death) working in a commercial kitchen, repeatedly grabbing burning items out of ovens so that, eventually, one doesn't react so severely to high temperatures. The "conservative brain" could possibly not have been trained/exposed to many new, strange, outside things (think the rural person who doesn't know any female-to-male transsexuals who only sleep with gay men).

    Of course, these are just analogies, but from my readings (and the careful degree to which they make clear that genetic causes are only pre-dispositions, not deterministic decrees), it seems this works, and may explain why urban dwellers tend more towards the "liberal" mind. While usually people point to the multitude of different ideas in a city as making people (have to be?) more tolerant, your summation of the conservative mind leads to something even more interesting(!): there's so much to "fear" in an urban environment that a brain trained to act "greatly" to negative stimuli would get pretty exhausted very quickly.

    One tiny quibble--I took the first and the third study to actually make the "liberal" brain more able to deal with contradictory ideas than the conservative; therefore, those with thin ACC would not be more likely to hold opposite ideas such as "God is Good" and "Sinners are punished..."; obviously, they do, but they rely heavily on bridge statements (God is Good, Sinners are Evil, A Good God can only punish Evil Sinners for eternity...). Thus all the statements about liberal tolerance of situational ethics in the studies would still hold. Or am I wrong?

  2. I have been inattentive to the blog world of late (including my own) but find this post fascinating. I'm sure I have much to say on it, however at the moment I feel the need to read, re- read and ponder before responding. Just wanted to tell you to keep writing.
    Love you!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Bonnie. It's not like you haven't had a little bit to do, solving the state's budget crisis and all... :)

    Rhyd, yes, your comparison to other parts of the body (muscles, etc.) was exactly where I was going if I had finished the train of thought. That was why I was pondering whether or not this was a chicken-and-an-egg question. Do, say, conservatives "learn" to be more prone to emotional, fearful reactions, or are people who have more emotional, fearful reactions more prone to conservatism? Most of the authors seemed to lean towards the latter, and at least one study was done with college age students whose political opinions could be described as "unsettled," but I don't think that goes back far enough. This field is only 5-6 years old, and I think this is one of those studies that would really have to happen over decades, starting with children and then observing their future choices.

    And yes, I think your second point was well made also. Ironically, in a totally unscientific study I had just done a facebook (yeah, I know, I know, but it gets the blog out there) app with a list of 100 wildly varied foods to see how many you had tried. When your friends do it, you see their results too. I had tried 76, Jen 73 and most of family, who are all pretty conservative, were in the 20s and 30s. Anecdotal, yes, but it sure fits the results above.

    As for the last bit, yes, I was hurrying, and I may have been off a bit. I wondered that as I hit publish, but I didn't have time to reflect. However, I think, what I got out of it anyway, was that a thicker ACC allows one to recognize and resolve conflict and contradiction (they are essentially the same thing, whether they are between people or ideas) which is what I was trying to say.

    I have to do a follow-up post anyway, because I really only got into what I was trying to get at, but now I have to a) find time, b) figure out how to really flesh it out so it stands alone. And where's yours? Seattle-blizzard leave you without power for a week? :)

  4. The same issue comes up often in behavioural science, particularly now that there are MRI's and fMRI's around. But it's been around a lot longer than that--does the physical correlation of social/mental traits define those traits, or is it just the physiological correspondence/residue? I'm sure you can guess which side I lean towards, of course, but I think, on either side, it's so far only opinion.

    I'm always particularly surprised that so many studies on inherited traits vs. environmental influence focus on family relations, either early childhood or later. It seems like the correct control would be family relations vs. outside life experiences, not biological traits passed on from parents vs. parental expression. But maybe it's my own familial background which tends to be out-of-step with most educated folks (but, I'm more and more learning, not out of step with the hoardes of the underclasses--ah, another post!) So much depends, too, on the twin studies, and although I appreciate how thorough the authors of the alford et al study were in elucidating the methodology and importance of it to non-geneticists, something still strikes me as missing.

    That is, I, too, should write a follow up post, somewhere in between the next installment of Against Progress, another chapter of my novel, a half-written medieval erotic story, band practice, work, union contract negotiations, and Heroes of Might and Magic 5.

    Sometimes, there's not enough tea.