Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part 4)

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

I thought I was done with “Why We Need Hokum” at the end of our third installment (here are parts one, two, and three), but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Getting back to the topic of hokum and why we need it, I’ve been interested in the various pieces of research that suggest an actual structural difference between the minds of conservatives and liberals, and not just because of the schadenfreude.

A 2008 study, “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind,” by Dana Carney, John Jost, Samuel Gosling, and Jeff Potter, published in Political Psychology, provides this helpful table combining the results of 27 different studies covering the period 1930 to 2007. (I use this particular example because it has both positive and negative traits listed for both sides.)

Personality Traits Theorized to be Associated with Liberal (or Left-Wing) and Conservative (or Right-Wing) Orientation                                                                              

  • Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent
  • Eccentric, sensitive, individualistic
  • Open, tolerant, flexible
  • Live-loving, free, unpredictable
  • Creative, imaginative, curious
  • Expressive, enthusiastic
  • Excited, sensation-seeking
  • Desire for novelty, diversity
  • Uncontrolled, impulsive
  • Complex, nuanced
  • Open-minded
  • Open to experience

  • Definite, persistent, tenacious
  • Tough, masculine, firm
  • Reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal
  • Stable, consistent
  • Rigid, intolerant
  • Conventional, ordinary
  • Obedient, conformist
  • Fearful, threatened
  • Xenophobic, prejudiced
  • Orderly, organized
  • Parsimonious, thrifty, stingy
  • Clean, sterile
  • Obstinate, stubborn
  • Angry, aggressive, vengeful
  • Careful, practical, methodical
  • Withdrawn, reserved
  • Stern, cold, mechanical
  • Anxious, suspicious, obsessive
  • Self-controlled
  • Restrained, inhibited
  • Concerned with rules, norms
  • Moralistic
  • Simple, decisive
  • Closed-minded

You’ll notice a fair amount of redundancy in both lists, the result of combining characteristics listed in different studies. Summarized in line with the “Big Five” framework of personality dimensions, it works out this way:

Characteristic   Liberals   Conservatives
Openness to Experience  High   Low
Conscientiousness  Low   High
Extraversion   High   Low in two categories
Agreeableness   Not listed   Mixed
Neuroticism   Not listed   High in two categories

Agreeableness and neuroticism don’t seem to be correlated with political belief, and while extraversion appears multiple times in the liberal mindset, its reverse appears only twice in the conservative mindset. The characteristics of openness to experience and conscientiousness, however, appear more consistently correlated with political attitude.

Evidence that these personality differences are innate comes from a 2006 longitudinal study in the Journal of Research in Personality, in which “preschool children who later identified themselves as liberal were perceived by their teachers as: self-reliant, energetic, emotionally expressive, gregarious, and impulsive. By contrast, those children who later identified as conservative were seen as: rigid, inhibited, indecisive, fearful, and overcontrolled.”

More powerfully, it seems that actual brain structure differs in self-identified liberals and conservatives. In a 2011 study by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai (“Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults” in Current Biology) MRI scans revealed that self-identified conservative brains had a larger amygdala, associated with greater sensitivity to fear and disgust in emotional learning, and liberals had an increase in the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information. Numerous other studies have produced similar results; Wikipedia summarizes them here.

While I’m persuaded that there are significant differences in human brains, and that differences in brain structure can naturally express themselves in terms of political leaning, I’m less persuaded (schadenfreude notwithstanding) that things line up so neatly by political party. I know political conservatives who are slovenly, creative, impulsive, and nuanced, and political liberals who are trustworthy, conventional, fearful, anxious, and closed-minded. A Republican alliance that mixes Western libertarians with Southern religious conservatives is hardly one-dimensional; the Democratic alliance is equally diverse. Still, trends are trends, and what may be untrue of individuals may yet be statistically descriptive of the group to which they belong.

One characteristic of hokum is that it’s simplistic: hokum strips away complexity and nuance and substitutes the comfort of concrete knowledge — even if it’s false. While it’s tempting to allocate the need for hokum to whichever political party we personally disfavor, I think it’s more accurate to say that both conservatives and liberals embrace hokum in some areas and reject it in others, depending on what fits the mental narrative that gives us greatest comfort. A belief in the perfectability of man is as much hokum as a belief in the inherent evil of the species. It’s easy enough to provide examples in support of either proposition; the truth is mixed.

In our long discussion of cognitive bias and decision disorders, we learned that no human being is, or possibly can be, free of such distortions. Bias is inherent, but that doesn’t mean all bias is equal. The attempt to be even-handed and accurate, to identify and fight sources of bias within one’s own thinking, is a noble and useful effort even when it’s doomed to failure.

The research on brain functioning has often been reported as a science-based dissing of conservative mental attitudes, but that’s not fair. Both the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex are part of our minds for a reason. The amygdala is part of our brain because the fear and disgust reflex is often a useful response to environmental hazards and threats. The anterior cingulate cortex’s desire for novelty, creativity, and impulsiveness can lead to disaster. We ignore either at our peril.

In the last installment of this discussion, we observed that some counter-factual beliefs can be positive. Believing that your romantic partner is unique, amazing, and special — even if objective evidence argues otherwise — contributes to a successful relationship.

We all do need hokum, liberal and conservative alike, and that’s not necessarily destructive as long as we combine our beliefs with self-awareness. All of our brains — liberal and conservative alike — contain both an amygdala and an anterior cingulate cortex. We all — liberal and conservative alike — have the mental equipment to challenge our own beliefs and recognize hokum when we see it, without necessarily changing our values in the process. And we all — liberal and conservative alike — have the moral obligation to do so.

There may be a Part 5, or perhaps not. Whether that’s “slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent,” or “complex, nuanced, open-minded” I leave as an exercise for the reader.

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