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May 20, 2006

Shock: Liberals' Brains Light Up Nasty When They Think About Conservatives

Now here's some interesting science, and not just because I love the results. (Well, mostly that.)

It confirms what we all pretty much know, but... there's a difference between "knowing" from anecdotal evidence and "feelings" and knowing through scientific testing and measurement.

When liberals are asked to think about conservatives, the parts of their brains associated with empathy shut down, and the region believed to be involved with distate and repulsion for "the other" lights up.

The human brain may have a built-in mechanism for keeping racially or politically distinct groups apart, a new Harvard study suggests.

U.S. researchers observed the brain activity of liberal college students who were asked to think about Christian conservatives. As they did so, a brain region strongly linked to the self and to empathy with others nearly shut down, while another center -- perhaps linked to stereotypic thoughts -- swung into high gear.

"It's as if you think that 'they' don't think like you do -- it's like you believe they are governed by a different set of rules when they think," explained study author Dr. Jason Mitchell, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University's department of psychology.

His team published its findings in the May 18 issue of Neuron.

According to Mitchell, social psychologists have long known that people engage different mental criteria when thinking about the possible thoughts and actions of people within their own ethnic, cultural or political group, vs. those outside that group.

The neurological mechanisms governing this process has been much less clear, however.


One theory that's gained credence among social neuroscientists is that people look to themselves when thinking about people they already include in their "group."


Previous studies have shown that an area toward the front of the brain, called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), always lights up when people think about themselves or people they consider similar to themselves.

But which part of the mPFC activates when people think about those outside their group?

To find out, the Harvard team hooked up a group of liberal Boston college students to a functional MRI machine, which tracks real-time changes in brain energy use.

They then asked the students to read detailed profiles of two people: one, a liberal-minded person much like themselves, and the other, a fundamentalist Christian conservative with views and activities very different from their own.

"We showed that there are distinct brain regions active in the mPFC," depending on the political stripe of the object in question, Mitchell said.

When the students thought about the liberal person, the mPFC's ventral region -- strongly associated with thoughts about the self -- got very active. But it quieted down when the subject was the Christian conservative -- instead, the mPFC's dorsal area took over.

"The dorsal region is a lot more mysterious," Mitchell said. "It's more engaged when I think about a dissimilar other."

"These data challenge the naive view that we bring the same mental orientation to bear when we think about those who are similar or different from us," said study co-author Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics in Harvard's department of psychology. "In particular, it raises questions about who can, objectively speaking, sit in judgment on whom."

Mitchell stressed that scientists currently have no way to tell what kinds of thoughts get processed in the dorsal mPFC. But he suspects it could be responsible for stereotypic thoughts that fail to take similarities between people into account, and instead stress their dissimilarities. So, people may consult the dorsal mPFC when they make snap judgments that assume that the "other" does not think or act like they do.

Of course, the next step is to wire up some conservatives and prompt them to think about liberals. I have only anecdotal evidence as a guide, but I expect they'll find that conservatives similary disengage the empathy centers and engage the threat/other centers of brain-- but to a far less pronounced degree.

It has to do with self-definitions and self-esteem. Liberals have a far greater amount of self-esteem invested in being "liberal" -- and therefore a far greater emotional investment in deeming non-liberals to be inferior -- than conservatives have in defining themselves as conservatives. Although binary distinctions are more untrue than true, there is a difference here-- for most conservatives, conservatism is something you believe in, but it's not who you actually are. Who you are is self-defined by a host of other factors.

But for liberals, the self-definition is central, perhaps core, to their sense of self, and self-worth. They, too, have other self-definitions that are important, but for most liberals, being a liberal is, in fact, what they are, and not simply what they believe.

Again, this is just anecodotal evidence talking -- the fact that while I, for example, think a liberal is foolish and sometimes self-serving and mendacious in professing his beliefs, I do not actually usually think him to be evil or something less than human; on the other hand, I can count too many times the simple (reluctant) admission that I voted for George Bush has produced a reaction among liberals of the approximate vehemence of announcing, say, that I was currently being investigated for child molestation.

We'll see if science is able to confirm those unscientific, anecdotal observations and inferences, or if it dispels them.

Thanks to Allah.

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posted by Ace at 02:21 PM

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