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Group Think: Do Liberals and Conservatives Have Different Brains?

Why can't Paul Krugman and Glenn Beck see eye to eye? It's all in their heads, according to researchers at the University College London, who conclude that the brain structure of liberals and conservatives may account for differences in political orientation.

Liberals tend to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in regulating emotion and decision-making. Conservatives are more likely to have studly amygdalas, a part of the brain commonly associated with the fear reflex.

Scientists in the study had 90 adults rank their political views on a scale from very liberal to very conservative. MRI scans were then used to analyze their brains, revealing significant differences in the two groups. Said lead researcher Ryota Kanai, in a statement:

Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual's political orientation. Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.
This is your brain on politics
It's easy to get carried away with this stuff, of course. A 90-person study is pretty small, and as Kanai acknowledges, political beliefs themselves don't appear to be hardwired. It's also unclear exactly how brain structure might shape social attitudes of any kind.

Given how people's experiences are known to alter their neurochemistry (I find that five minutes of Fox and Friends can cause deep depression, for instance), there also may be reason to think that political views are as likely to change the brain as the other way around. Finally, many (perhaps most) people's politics can't be classified as either categorically liberal or conservative. Our views are typically more nuanced and conflicted than that, and they may change not only over time but from issue to issue.

But the findings can't be dismissed out of hand. For one thing, they square with previous studies suggesting that liberals show greater facility in dealing with conflicting information and are more open to new experiences, while conservatives are generally better at recognizing a threat. Related research has found that the groups differ in other interesting ways:

[T]he University of Nebraska found that liberals and conservatives had different reactions to "gaze cues" -- whether they tended to look in the same direction as a face on their computer screen. Liberals were more likely than conservatives to follow another person's gaze, suggesting that people who lean right value autonomy more; alternative explanations suggest that liberals might be more empathetic, or that conservatives are less trusting of others.
That would seem to describe Krugman and Beck, along with other pundits scattered across the ideological spectrum. But that's probably just my liberal brain at work.

Glenn Beck image from Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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