The brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political divides may be hard-wired, according a study released Sunday.
Conservatives tend to crave order and structure in their lives, and are more consistent in the way they make decisions. Liberals, by contrast, show a higher tolerance for ambiguity and complexity, and adapt more easily to unexpected circumstances.
The affinity between political views and “cognitive style” has also been shown to be heritable, handed down from parents to children, said the study, published in the British journal Nature Neuroscience.
Intrigued by these correlations, New York University political scientist David Amodio and colleagues decided to find out if the brains of liberals and conservatives reacted differently to the same stimuli.
A group of 43 right-handed subjects were asked to perform a series of computer tests designed to evaluate their unrehearsed response to cues urging them to break a well-established routine.
“People often drive home from work on the same route, day after day, such that it becomes habitual and doesn’t involve much thinking,” Amodio explained by way of comparison in an e-mail.
“But occasionally there is road work, or perhaps an animal crosses the road, and you need to break out of your habitual response in order to deal with this new information.”
Using electroencephalographs, which measure neuronal impulses, the researchers examined activity in a part of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex — that is strongly linked with the self-regulatory process of conflict monitoring.
The match-up was unmistakable: respondents who had described themselves as liberals showed “significantly greater conflict-related neural activity” when the hypothetical situation called for an unscheduled break in routine.
Conservatives, however, were less flexible, refusing to deviate from old habits “despite signals that this … should be changed.”