Saturday, November 22, 2014

Are liberals and conservatives differently wired?

Anti-UKIP protest in Edinburgh (source: Brian McNeil, Wikicommons). "Conservative" increasingly means pro-white.


Are liberals and conservatives differently wired? It would seem so. When brain MRIs were done on 90 young adults from University College London, it was found that self-described liberals tended to have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas self-described conservatives tended to have a larger right amygdala. These results were replicated in a second sample of young adults (Kanai et al., 2011).

The amygdala is used to recognize fearful facial expressions, whereas the anterior cingulate cortex serves to monitor uncertainty and conflict (Adolphs et al., 1995; Botvinick et al., 1999; Critchley et al., 2001; Kennerley et al., 2006). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings were changed somewhat in the popular press. "Conservatives Big on Fear, Brain Study Finds," ran a headline in Psychology Today. The same article assured its readers that the anterior cingulate cortex "helps people cope with complexity" (Barber, 2011).

A study on 82 young American adults came to a similar conclusion. Republicans showed more activity in the right amygdala, and Democrats more activity in the left insula. Unlike the English study, the anterior cingulate cortex didn't differ between the two groups (Schreiber et al., 2013).

It would seem, then, that conservatives and liberals are neurologically different. Perhaps certain political beliefs will alter your mental makeup. Or perhaps your mental makeup will lead you to certain political beliefs. But how can that be when conservatism and liberalism have changed so much in recent times, not only ideologically but also electorate-wise? A century ago, English "conservatives" came from the upper class, the middle class, and outlying rural areas. Today, Britain's leading "conservative" party, the UKIP, is drawing more and more of its members from the urban working class—the sort of folks who routinely voted Labour not so long ago. Similar changes have taken place in the U.S. Until the 1950s, white southerners were overwhelmingly Democrats. Now, they're overwhelmingly Republicans.

Of course, the above studies are only a few years old. When we use terms like "conservative" and "liberal" we refer to what they mean today. Increasingly, both terms have an implicitly ethnic meaning. The UKIP is becoming the native British party, in opposition to a growing Afro-Asian population that votes en bloc for Labour. Meanwhile, the Republicans are becoming the party of White Americans, particularly old-stock ones, in opposition to a Democrat coalition of African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, plus a dwindling core of ethnic whites.

So are these brain differences really ethnic differences? Neither study touches the question. The English study assures us that the participants were homogeneous:

We deliberately used a homogenous sample of the UCL student population to minimize differences in social and educational environment. The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency reports that 21.1% of UCL students come from a working-class background. This rate is relatively low compared to the national average of 34.8%. This suggests that the UCL students from which we recruited our participants disproportionately have a middle-class to upper-class background. (Kanai et al., 2011)

Yes, the students were largely middle-class, but how did they break down ethnically? Wikipedia provides a partial answer:

In 2013/14, 12,330 UCL students were from outside the UK (43% of the total number of students in that year), of whom 5,504 were from Asia, 3,679 from the European Union ex. the United Kingdom, 1,195 from North America, 516 from the Middle East, 398 from Africa, 254 from Central and South America, and 166 from Australasia (University College London, 2014)

These figures were for citizenship only. We should remember that many of the UK students would have been of non-European origin. 

We know more about the participants in the American study. They came from the University of California, San Diego, whose student body at the time was 44% Asian, 26% Caucasian, 10% Mexican American, 10% unknown, 4% Filipino, 3% Latino/Other Spanish, and 2% African American (Anon, 2010). This ethnic breakdown mirrors the party breakdown of the participants: 60 Democrats (72.5%) and 22 Republicans (27.5%).

Affective empathy and ethnicity

In my last post, I cited a study showing that the amygdala is larger in extraordinary altruists—people who have donated one of their kidneys to a stranger. In that study, we were told that a larger amygdala is associated with greater responsiveness to fearful facial expressions, i.e., a greater willingness to help people in distress. Conversely, psychopaths have a smaller amygdala and are less responsive to fearful faces (Marsh et al., 2014).

Hmm ... That's a tad different from the spin in Psychology Today. Are liberals the ones who don't care about others? Are they ... psychopaths?

It would be more accurate to say that "liberals" come from populations whose capacity for affective empathy is lower on average and who tend to view any stranger as a potential enemy. That's most people in this world, and that's how most of the world works. I suspect the greater ability to monitor uncertainty and conflict reflects adaptation to an environment that has long been socially fragmented into clans, castes, religions, etc. This may explain why a larger anterior cingulate cortex correlated with "liberalism" in the British study (high proportion of South Asian students) but not in the American study (high proportion of East Asian students).

As for "conservatives," they largely come from Northwest Europe, where a greater capacity for affective empathy seems to reflect an environment of relatively high individualism, relatively weak kinship, and relatively frequent interactions with nonkin. This environment has prevailed west of the Hajnal Line since at least the 12th century, as shown by the longstanding characteristics of the Western European Marriage Pattern: late age of marriage for both sexes; high rate of celibacy; strong tendency of children to form new households; and high circulation of non-kin among families. This zone of weaker kinship, with greater reliance on internal means of behavior control, may also explain why Northwest Europeans are more predisposed to guilt than to shame, whereas the reverse is generally the case elsewhere in the world (Frost, 2014).

All of this may sound counterintuitive. Doesn't the political left currently stand for autonomy theory and individualism? Doesn't it reject traditional values like kinship? In theory it does. The reality is a bit different, though. When Muslims vote Labour, it's not because they want gay marriage and teaching of gender theory in the schools. They expect something else.

The same goes for the political right. When former Labourites vote UKIP, it's not because they want lower taxes for the rich and offshoring of manufacturing jobs. They expect something else. Are they being delusional? Perhaps. But, then, are the Muslims being delusional? 

Perhaps neither group is. Perhaps both understand what politics is really about.



Adolphs, R., D. Tranel, H. Damasio, and A.R. Damasio. (1995). Fear and the human amygdala, The Journal of Neuroscience, 15, 5879-5891. 

Anon (2010). Racial breakdown of the largest California public colleges, The Huffington Post, May 4 

Barber, N. (2011). Conservatives big on fear, study finds, Psychology Today, April 19

Botvinick, M., Nystrom, L.E., Fissell, K., Carter, C.S., and Cohen, J.D. (1999). Conflict monitoring versus selection-for-action in anterior cingulate cortex, Nature, 402, 179-181.

Critchley, H.D., Mathias, C.J., and Dolan, R.J. (2001). Neural activity in the human brain relating to uncertainty and arousal during anticipation, Neuron, 29, 537-545. 

Frost, P. (2014). We are not equally empathic, Evo and Proud, November 15 

Kanai, R., T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults, Current Biology, 21, 677 - 680.

Kennerley, S.W., Walton, M.E., Behrens, T.E., Buckley, M.J., and Rushworth, M.F. (2006). Optimal decision making and the anterior cingulate cortex. Nat. Neurosci. 9, 940-947.

Marsh, A.A., S.A. Stoycos, K.M. Brethel-Haurwitz, P. Robinson, J.W. VanMeter, and E.M. Cardinale. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 15036-15041.

Schreiber, D., Fonzo, G., Simmons, A.N., Dawes, C.T., Flagan, T., et al. (2013). Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 8(2): e52970. 

University College London. (2014). Wikipedia


Krefter said...

Most of the ideologically liberals are white-European, while non-whites who vote for them in elections are usually more conservative socially. That's what I've noticed.

Non-whites in the west don't have a background in western-politics, and conservative-whites to them(glaringly based on truth) are solely people trying to stick to the west's past with less individual rights, discrimination, and a society based on traditional western culture and Christianity.

Libearl-whites to them though are people who care more about individual rights, are completely against any-type of discrimination, and don't want to have a society with traditional western culture and Christianity.

So of course they're going to associate with liberal-whites, because they don't feel any familiarity with westernism, and feel conservatives don't want them and are raciest.

But just because they mostly vote for libearls doesn't mean, ideology wise and socially they're libearl. How many African-Americans in Mississippi are atheist and go to LGBT rallies? No those people are mostly liberal-whites, and specially ones from Urban or somewhat-rich backgrounds.

What people think of as "conservative" and "Libearl" are the extremes, when in reality it's much more complex.

JayMan said...

A couple of key points.

I've wondered if these studies claiming to show brain differences according to personality or views were racially confounded. This appears to be the case here.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting this, via Neuroskeptic:

Failed Replications: A Reality Check for Neuroscience? - Neuroskeptic

"As for 'conservatives,' they largely come from Northwest Europe, where a greater capacity for affective empathy seems to reflect an environment of relatively high individualism, relatively weak kinship, and relatively frequent interactions with nonkin."

It's important to distinguish social conservatives from economic conservatives. Clannish groups in NW Euro countries (both White and non-White) side with liberal parties for self-interested reasons: namely, because they are beneficiaries of redistribution from wealthier groups. These clannish groups typically aren't very socially liberal and often care little for traditionally socially liberal causes.

Krefter said...

"As for "conservatives," they largely come from Northwest Europe, where a greater capacity for affective empathy seems to reflect an environment of relatively high individualism, relatively weak kinship, and relatively frequent interactions with nonkin."

Get off of NW Europe, Peter? I'm %#*& tired of you obsessing over it. I doubt you know much about the various societies in NW Europe since the middle ages, and are putting them all under the same category.

What about Italy and Spain, I'm sure they were under very similar circumstances during the middle ages.

What about Islamic extermist? They're far more conservative than anyone in Europe, but of course you won't mention them. Your theories have holes in them, and you makeup your conclusion before seeing the evidence and then twist the evidence to go along with that conclusion.

"Hmm ... That's a tad different from the spin in Psychology Today. Are liberals the ones who don't care about others? Are they ... psychopaths?"

Does everything you say have to have controversy in it? When you talk about ancient European genomes, all you focus on is what color they were.

I've seen your type many times before.

You grew up in a western European nation(Canada).

Your era's idea of western-Europeanism: Civilized, Christian-Protestant, materialistic, stauchent-morality, un-passionate, timid, etc.

People who grow to power through brains not muscle. People who are not native, raciest, and took land from natives who were the opposite in every way(better in some people's view).

This view of western Europeanism I think formed in the age of exploration. First it was a positive thing, western Europeans seeing themselves better than more primitive people they meet up with, but in recent years it turned into a form of racism against western Europeans.

This is why whenever a study about ancient European genetics is published you try to find evidence of no-continuum genetic on modern Europeans, no-pigmentation continuum in modern Europeans, etc. You want to find something(and then post it) that makes people go "aww", and goes along with our era's view of Europeans(Non-indigenous).

You need to realize the world didn't begin in 1500AD or in 500AD. Modern NW European cultures and stero-types are mostly because of culture, NOT INHERITANCE.

You need to look at Europe from a world perspective not a 1500AD-2000AD European perspective.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The word "conservative" is a French word created during the French Revolution for those who wanted to maintain the ancien regime. In the Anglo-sphere, "conservative" means liberal. They are progressives in the Anglosphere. Continental conservatives are for Throne and Altar. Any studies done in France?

The Republican Party in America was founded by Masons and was the party of abolitionism which is liberal and progressive. Now, it is considered "conservative". It usually adopts democratic memes sooner or later. It has nothing to do with Continental conservatism. The Republican "conservative" party voted for the Civil Rights Act.

"What is politics all about?" It is all about demogoguery since Britain and America are both democracies; they require no logicisms.

Santoculto said...

I think the '' liberal '' are seeker status. But, today, there a kind of ''awareness'' of liberalism way of life (analogically similar to ''awareness of autistic community'').

In the past, they aren't visible.
''liberals'' are COMPLETELY devoted by their masters today, like a dog with your ''owner''.

''Leftoids'' or ''liberals'' and ''conservatives'' there are around the world. Look to the muslim world and Thailand, a lot of transex and certain tolerance with sexual diversity.

Santoculto said...

The names have changed, people do not. See Marlene Dietrich against Hitler.

South white americans ''always'' was naturally conservatives like south asians.

Anonymous said...

How do we account for the cognitive dissidence of a certain group that is "liberal" in the diaspora but "conservative" in the homeland?

Self-deception? It's more memetic than genetic.

Peter Fros_ said...


To paraphrase Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. Terms like "conservative" and "liberal" have been weaponized for purposes that are not necessarily conservative or liberal. To avoid ambiguity, it might be better to use other terms, like "traditionalist." Even "social conservative" is problematic.


My first reaction was the same as yours, but Kanai et al. were able to replicate their findings with a separate sample of participants. There's also that other study by Schreiber et al. Again, ethnicity is being confounded with political affiliation, and I'm surprised that nothing was done to control for that factor.


I tend to "obsess" over things that no one else has noticed. As for Italy and Spain, they are largely west and north of the Hajnal Line.

In Western Europe, Muslims vote massively for Labour in Britain and for the Socialist Party in France. I believe a similar pattern is true for Italy and Spain. That may seem contradictory but it isn't. Politics is about power. It's not an impartial process where everyone seeks what is best for everyone else.

I don't deny the importance of culture. In fact, culture is so important that it has influenced genetic evolution. The two act on each other.


The Republicans have rebranded themselves repeatedly. The same is true for "conservative" parties elsewhere. I'm not surprised that this happens, although I am surprised that so few people see through it.


When people belong to a minority and fear for its future, they discover the virtues of minority rights. When they belong to the majority and fear for its future, they discover the virtues of majority rights.

Anonymous said... see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out;...Nothing to do with wiring then?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking up this issue – I've learned a lot from this and previous columns.

My comment: re sociopolitical reality, these and similar studies seem consistently simplistic.

Re contemporary Europe.

First, l/r categories are have become meaningless, millions are experiencing shifts in ideological orientation (mainly due to Islamization).

the methodological net has ro be fine enough to capture individuals be classifiable as hybrid freaks according to conventional criteria.

2 questions:

are there disparities between the levels of “empathy” displayed by libs/conservatives re abstract categories (people of color) v concrete individuals?

Ex. recently, German leftists beat protesters against Salafism, 2 were severely injured.

On the “empathy” scale, how to categorize a l who cripples his next door neighbor over Israeli settlements?

And feels no guilt? (Remember guilt? Supposedly a defining trait of these “hyper-empathetic” – but also v. violent – n. European leftists??)

How to deal theoretically with disparities between strong “empathy” for strangers halfway around the world, coupled with indifference to the suffering of neighbors or close relatives who disagree with you about immigration?

2nd question:

how to classify the enormous number of educated Europeans (including public intellectuals) on the “empathy” scale who are consumed with grief and guilt over the plague of “Islamophobia” in Europe (“empathy”, “guilt,”…), but speak archly at dinner parties about killing Zionists, wiping Israel off the map, and say re the recent Jerusalem synagogue attack that “those people got what they asked for!!”

(Another example: try talking to one of these “hyperempathic, guilt ridden” European leftist intellectuals about Muslim persecution of Christians – same response as someone who has just swallowed a handful of sleeping pills…)

A study of “empathy and guilt” in contemporary NW Europeans would need to meaningfully theorize the gargantuan discrepancy between

One: feverish levels of “empathy” for faraway nonwhite/non-Christian strangers and nonwhite immigrants, coupled with

Two: breathtakingly callous indifference toward European Jews (as anti-Semitic violence rises to 1930s levels), faraway whites/nonwhite Christians; public displays of sadistic glee by the supposedly “hyperempathic, guilt-ridden” European leftist intellectuals when Israeli Jews are killed or maimed in terrorist attacks.

To state the incredibly obvious:
“Empathy” (i.e., an often bizarre ENSEMBLE of phenomena in contemporary social life to which we refer rather inexpertly as “empathy” because we don't really know what it is…) is SELECTIVE, and often coupled with murderous and even sadistic rage.

Or is there a corollary: the more intense and all-consuming the feelings of “empathy” (in quotes because again: displays of “empathy” by progressives are taken at face value in these studies, not theorized or analyzed in any meaningful way), the more murderous rage toward the perceived agent of suffering (the “right to life” fanatics who shoot “abortion doctors”)?

Moreover, why is it not more obvious that for many progressives and leftists, expressions of empathy are pro forma, poses, that their motivations may lie elsewhere:

competition for social status/professional advancement; a focus for rage against authority figures; a desire to be different/ special, etc. etc.

the kind of perverted “empathy” – which often takes the form of open self-hatred, even autogenocidal impulses on the part of leftist Jews, for ex. - another topic that would have to be dealt with REALISTICALLY – displayed by European leftists today desperately needs to be analyzed scientifically.

So far, the studies I've read about are too simplistic and crippled by ideological preconceptions to make any contribution to this life and death discussion.

Anonymous said...


I think the empathy thing and the liberal vs conservative thing are separate.

The core of the liberal vs conservative thing is (imo) having pro-change vs anti-change as a default position.

The empathy thing is not everyone in a certain region has high empathy it's the *average* is higher but it's still only a tiny percentage who would give a kidney to a stranger (and skewed heavily female as well so politically it has much more impact since women got the vote).

(possibly one of PF's skewed sexual selection behaviors imo)

So at the very least you need four categories

high empathy + liberal
average/low empathy + liberal
high empathy + conservative
average/low empathy + conservative

and high empathy might display completely differently when combined with liberal rather than conservative.

Anonymous said...

Peter, why don't you solicit donations for your blogging? You post pretty thorough blogs pretty regularly. Plus you participate in the comment threads. Bloggers with less output than you seem to solicit donations. You should solicit donations.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the commenter who points out that the left/right issue must be treated SEPARATELY from the empathy issue.

As it pointed out in my somewhat rambling post above, the CONTINUUM MODEL between empathy and indifference is of limited value because of the prevalence phenomenon today of the COINCIDENCE of HYPEREMPATHY (to the point of self-destructive insanity) and MURDEROUS RAGE toward the perceived villain (i.e./the Jews/Zionists/Israel in the case of the neurotic hyperempathy displayed by whites and often Jews as well toward the so-called “Palestinians”.)

Unfortunately, to understand the current phenomena of left fascism and pathological altruism, white self-hatred combined with the romanticization and glorification of “people of color,” not to mention a weird combination of Islamophilia and anti-Semitism that are THE characteristic psychological phenomena in the West today, you would have to develop a psychological profile for a typical white individual who displays

HYPEREMPATHY toward “people of color” (especially in the abstract, and preferably on a different continent – or at least in a different town);

CALLOUS INDIFFERENCE toward whites in general (toward the West);

MURDEROUS RAGE toward Israeli/Zionist/Jews (or some other scapegoat group);

and who is PURITANICALLY MORALISTIC in his politics, yet at the same time

NARCISSISTICALLY SELF-INDULGENT in his private life (i.e., incapable of long-term relationships, sexually promiscuous, unreliable).

I guess geneticists are looking for individual traits, not contradictory constellations of traits such as exaggerated empathy for strangers combined with cynical indifference/hostility toward one's own group.

Readers of Dickens, for example, are familiar with a character who is torn to shreds with compassion toward people in faraway Africa, yet utterly indifferent toward the suffering of her own small children – writers have been dealing with such psychological complexity for millennia.

To state the blindingly obvious:
any model that deals with empathy on a continuum must also deal with self-deception, delusion, and hypocrisy,

AND with the COINCIDENCE of ONE) HYPEREMPATHY (for strangers/foreigners/wholly imaginary entities such as “the Palestinians”), combined with TWO) INDIFFERENCE/HOSTILITY toward one's own clan/race/extended family (or toward a scapegoat group held responsible for the sufferings of the recipients of empathy).

A final parenthetical question: have progressives/leftists trained themselves to display the physiological responses characteristic of “empathy” – to fool both themselves and the lab equipment?

Santoculto said...

''i.e./the Jews/Zionists/Israel in the case of the neurotic hyperempathy displayed by whites and often Jews as well toward the so-called “Palestinians”''


''muslims'' aren't angels in the desert i know very well) but ''jews'' aren't too.

(detail, i use commas because ''muslims'' and ''jews'' are ''atemporal demographic abstractions'', there are many internal differences within both groups as well any other group, but exception prove majority).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Krefter, African-Americans in Mississippi don't attend LGBT rallies (or environmentalist, anti-globalist, pro-hispanic, antiwar, or other liberal causes) because there's nothing in it for them. It is self-interest, not ideology which drives them. This is common in groups which feel they are far enough down the ladder that they have to circle the wagons, and cannot spare risk for others.

As for Spain, Italy, Muslims, etc, your devotion to what should be true - because you can devise a just-so story that supports it - rather than what is currently observed, is touching.

Mirco Romanato said...

A possible answer to the problem of the different brain wiring of left/right people, liberals/conservatives, communists/democratic christians or whatever could be this:

many of the current leftist use their "good" social behavior to justify their "bad" personal behavior (but in the past they could be had core catholics, islamists, or whatever other ideological group they happen to adhere). There was a study about this from some university.

It really do not matter to them if they are doing real good or not to the object of their social good work. The goal is not helping the palestinians, the homosexuals, the muslims, the black, africans, or whatever. The goal is to score as many as possible "karma" point, so they can spend them where they prefer. Usually these "karma" points are about some popular belief in their social circle (where they can spend these point).

In essence it is not different from the sale of indulgences of Medieval Times. Just instead of spending their money they spend their time and someone else money (usually the taxpayers).
It is fundamental to be seen by their peers to do what they do (contrary to the Biblical injunction to not be seen doing the right thing to not be lauded).

The difference between common psychopathics is there: psychopaths do not feel they are doing something wrong but understand others could not think in the same way. Leftists (the current type) know they are doing something wrong and buy their indulgences.

It is worth noting Christianity (every major confession, I believe) it is totally against this interpretation, but gnostics usually tend to think in this way. Islam interpretation see in the same way of gnostics.

In fact, Christianity is the only major faith where good and bad actions can not balance each other. Only Jesus saves if you reject totally the evil ways (repent).