How Liberal & Conservative Brains Differ

by JR Thorpe
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Amid all of the think pieces about "a divided America" and "fake news," it's worth looking at some of the science that's been done on the differences, both psychological and neurological, between liberals and conservatives, and what that says about political agendas and finding common ground. If you think that under the surface we're all the same, you're right, but only to a point. While some studies have found distinct similarities in the behavior of liberals and conservatives, others have identified some very interesting differences, ones that go deeper than disagreements on the Affordable Care Act and speak to how political affiliations relate to our most elemental reactions.

The exact relationship between politics, psychology, and neurology is still an evolving one. Where we stand on the political divide does seem to have real influences on our behavior, the way we think, and even the ways our neurons fire, but it's still an open question as to how.

It's also important to note that this isn't a liberals-are-from-Mars, conservatives-are-from-Venus irreconcilable divide. Looking at these differences between liberals and conservatives elucidates why certain things are so hard to agree on, how particular political priorities change our approach to information and threats, and what might be done about it. If we can understand how the other side thinks and works, we're more likely to be able to have a productive democratic conversation, rather than just going hoarse yelling at one another in a field.

Conservatives Are More Likely To Believe In False Worries

One of the most recent studies on the differences between conservative and liberal psychology, released this week from the University of California, has particular relevance now, what with the conversation about "fake news" and the gradual undercutting of belief in the press by right-wing pundits. The scientists behind it, however, emphasize that the studies themselves took place in 2015 and 2016, and weren't directly related to news coverage or particular outlets. Instead, they measured how Americans of differing political views reacted a variety of "facts," most of which were complete bunkum.

Some of the "facts" were about pretty benign or positive things, but some of them were about potential hazards, like the ability of drunk people to open the doors on planes. Both conservatives and liberals maintained a useful skepticism about the positive claims, but conservatives were far more likely to believe that the false hazard warnings were true. This doesn't mean that conservatives are inherently credulous. It indicates, the researchers believe, that conservatism prioritizes safety, and liberalism prioritizes innovation and progress. Both approaches have costs and benefits; conservatives can be over-cautious, while liberals can ignore valid warnings.

Liberal & Conservative Brains Have Different Responses To Disgust

You know scientific results are interesting when they slightly flabbergast the scientists who've produced them. So it was with a 2014 study about how people of different political outlooks reacted to disgusting images. The scientists behind the study looked at the neural responses in the brains of both liberals and conservatives while they were shown a variety of images, and something in particular showed up: when it came to disgusting images, particularly of animals, the neural patterns in their brains were radically different. The most interesting thing about this, according to scientists, was that disgusting images "generate neural responses that are highly predictive of political orientation even though these neural predictors do not agree with participants’ conscious rating of the stimuli." In other words, the people in the study might say one thing, but their brains were saying another, and the messages were very different in liberal and conservative heads.

The results were also really, really strong. When they figured out the pattern, the lead scientist told the media, "A single disgusting image was sufficient to predict each subject's political orientation." Why on earth would this be the case? The perspective of the scientists is that it's something about the nature of disgust. We feel disgust as a kind of protective impulse, one that stops us ingesting dangerous foods or going near contaminated, potentially unhealthy material. Conservatives may perhaps have a different relationship to disgust, or are more likely to feel it. However, the study didn't sort out where these differences in neural patterning come from. Does the way we think about politics physically change our brains? Are we born with right or left-wing brains in the first place? It's a very odd new area of science.

Conservatives Are More Direct In Their Language

This is a fascinating one and occurs across different language divides, according to a study by British scientists in 2016. They looked at the speech patterns of political speech in Lebanon, America, and Poland, and analyzed different politicians' word choice according to their political affiliation. The result was that conservative-leaning politicians across multiple languages tend to rely more on nouns when talking about things, while liberal ones tend to use descriptive language and discuss their features.

The word choice, according to the scientists, appears to reveal different values about the usage of persuasive language (which is, after all, what political speech is all about). Conservatives are more likely to call a spade a spade and "talk straight" rather than do anything that could obscure their message because their priorities center around stability and clarity. The fact that this persists over three extremely different languages (Polish, Arabic, and American English) indicates that values around nouns and naming things, and how people react to it, are cross-cultural. How odd is that.

Liberals Are More Likely To Believe Data & Its Implications

The decision of the Trump White House to eliminate a lot of data from various scientific websites run by the government may be solved by this last study, conducted across America in 2016. It was oriented at seeing how interested people of different political orientations were in looking at new scientific data, whether or not it agreed with something they believed in. The results suggest that American liberals and conservatives trust and rely upon different kinds of evidence, which may be why arguments can sometimes go nowhere so fast.

Conservatives, in response to the offer of new empirical information on three different topics (social media, social safety nets, and world justice), were less likely to take the scientists up on it. They were less likely to believe that scientific evidence was useful or at the top of a hierarchy of informational sources, and were more inclined towards believing other kinds of information. Conservatives, in other words, are less prone to following a rationalist, Enlightenment view in which scientific evidence is unquestioningly a good way to form opinions. Which is why dozens of well-meaning articles about climate change will likely not change your Aunt Patty's mind.

Their Perceptions Of Each Other Are Equally Skewed

Think you're a purely level-headed person regardless of political orientation? A study from 2012 has news for you. It looked at how 2,212 Americans of differing political orientation thought about their own morality and the opposite side's, and found that both orientations share a decided tendency to exaggerate. Not about themselves — about others.

Liberals showed more of a tendency to prioritize individual morality, while conservatives talked more about group values like loyalty. So far, so reasonably compatible. But when it came to talking about the morality of people who had differing political views, both sides were inclined to exaggerate about how their opposition felt and thought. They tended to trade in stereotypes that conservatives simply "didn't care" about the values espoused by liberals and vice versa, and liberals were the worst when it came to misrepresenting the views of both sides. This was, of course, before the advent of President Trump and his cavalcade of incapabilities, but deep divisions and suspicions across the party divide have been around for a good while.