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The Republican Mind

My wife and I are Democrats, yet some of our best friends are Republicans, but that’s no problem, we simply avoid talking about politics. Our best friend of all, in fact, is herself a  Republican, a charming, kind, lovely woman, who until a couple of years ago led a dream life with her rich husband; Malibu mansion, fancy cars, fancy yacht, all the usual trappings of the very wealthy. Then her husband got sick with serious heart problems. With terrifying speed, their dream fell apart as the medical and hospital bills skyrocketed, the husband lost his health insurance because of his “pre-existing condition,” and they had to sell the cars, the yacht, the mansion, until they had nothing left at all, whereupon the medical treatment came to a full stop and the man died, leaving our friend destitute. Coming from Europe and Canada, where the one thing you never had to worry about when your health broke down was a lack of money, we found it obscene that our friend’s husband had been killed simply by a lack of the stuff, something that could never happen in any other country in the civilized world.

We made this point to our friend. Didn’t she see that if the U.S. had adopted the universal health care system she so despised, her husband would still be alive? And that’s when we encountered the full force of the Republican Mind. She looked at us as if we had gone out of our own. What were we talking about? National health was socialism, government interference, it would destroy the American way of life. Just as the private health system destroyed your husband’s life? we retorted.

And so it went, talking past each other, operating from totally different “frames” as George Lakoff put it in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, diametrically opposite ways of seeing the world: our friend’s opinions based on the conservative Strict Parent model versus our liberal Nurturant Parent model. Even after what she had been through, our friend was incapable of seeing the world from another point of view, of making the connection, for example, between a health system based on profit and the deaths of tens of thousands of uninsured Americans each year because there was no profit in keeping them alive. We inhabited different universes of discourse and contrasting worlds of morality; politically speaking, we were hermetically sealed off from one another.

It was as if Republicans and the Democrats were wired differently. I began to make jokes to my wife that the Republicans must have fallen head first out of their prams as babies and damaged their brains. Which of course is absurd.

Or is it?

Some mind-blowing studies have recently come out about the mind, exposing fundamental neurological and genetic differences between the conservative and the liberal brain.

Political scientists and psychologists have long noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles and are less likely to seek out new experiences, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty and are more likely to seek out new experiences. This has been borne out by personality tests, where people who score higher on the “openness” scale tend to be more liberal, whereas people who score higher on the “conscientiousness” scale tend to be more conservative, more averse to searching out differing points of view and opinions, lifestyles and cultures. Learning foreign languages and traveling abroad is a prime example. It’s no accident that more than 50% of liberals possess U.S. passports whereas the number is only 25% for conservatives.

In 2007, neuroscientists at NYU and UCLA conducted a study to test the hypothesis that these different cognitive styles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning. They selected a number of college students whose politics ranged from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” They then instructed these students 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 the 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 arch-shaped area in the center of the frontal lobe that detects conflicts, in this case 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, although 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.

What does this mean? Well, as one of the neurologists pointed out, you can think of the anterior cingulate cortex as the brain’s “gear shifter,” holding two sides of a conflicting issue and examining one view then the other, “shifting” back and forth between the two. The study showed that this function is more highly developed in liberals than in conservatives. As UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni put it, “greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.” The anterior cingulate cortex is also the part of the brain that is responsible for courage and optimism. So it would seem that liberals not only tend to be more capable of coping with differing points of view than conservatives, they also tend to be more courageous and optimistic.

If the study is confirmed, it could provide the first medical explanation for why conservatives are more receptive to threats of terrorism than liberals. And it may help to explain why conservatives like to base their plans on the worst-case scenario, while liberals tend towards the best case.

In 2011, a University College London’s study dug deeper into these gray matters by taking pictures of exactly what was going on. They performed MRI scans of the brains of nearly 120 students and uncovered a “strong correlation” between the thickness of the anterior cingulate cortex and the individual’s political views. The more the students described themselves as liberal the thicker their anterior cingulate cortex, and the more they described themselves as conservative the thinner it was.

The researchers then took a look at the amygdala of each student, the almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. This is one of the most ancient and primitive parts of the brain that has to do with our emotions, notably anxiety and fear. Here the results were the reverse of those involving the anterior cingulate cortex: the more the participants described themselves as liberal or left-wing, the thinner their amygdala and the less fearful they tended to be; conversely, the more the participants described themselves as conservative or right-wing, the thicker their amygdala and the more fearful they tended to be and the more sensitive they were to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty. Geraint Rees, the neurologist who carried out the study, noted that this was very significant because it suggested “there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.” Geraint added that, just by looking at brain scans, he and his researchers could predict who was liberal and who was conservative with about 75% accuracy.

So much for neurological differences between liberals and conservatives. Now for genetic differences between these two political groups as evidenced in a third study, which went even deeper than the two we have just discussed.

In 2010, James Fowler and others at Harvard and the University of California at San Diego set out to find if politics were heritable by identifying a specific gene variant associated with novelty seeking that was only found in those of a liberal disposition: the so-called “liberal gene.” About 40 percent of the general population have at least one copy of this gene, or to be more precise, this R7 gene variant of the dopamine receptor DRD4 gene.

Fowler’s study focused on 2,500 subjects from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. By matching genetic information with maps of the subjects’ social networks, he and his researchers were able to show that people with the R7 variant were more likely to be liberal, but only if they had led an active social life in adolescence.

“To best describe the results,” said Fowler, “we can look at people with two copies of the R7 gene and the number of friends they have. The association test we conducted suggests an interaction between biology and environment. Among people with two copies of the R7 gene, we compared those who have zero friends to those who have ten friends, and found that the increase in friends would move you almost halfway from being conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal on our five-point scale that ranges from ‘very conservative’ to ‘very liberal’.”

To sum up: although Republicans may not have fallen head first out of their prams as babies and damaged their brains, they might as well have done, for there is no denying that both neurologically and genetically speaking, they need to have their heads examined.

More articles by:

David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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