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Campaign Tales: Left or Right: All in Your Head?

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By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Oct 1, 2008 7:00 AM


A UCLA researcher's study hints that liberals and conservatives actually have different brains.

Does science get a vote? Research conducted by a visiting researcher at UCLA may have discovered what we all probably already think: People with different politics don't just disagree; they actually have different brains.

It began last year in a UCLA lab where New York University Social Psychology Professor David Amodio was doing postdoctoral work studying self-regulation. He decided to take a short detour and examine whether political alignments such as liberalism or conservatism relate to how the brain processes information.

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In the experiment, 43 subjects — all of whom had previously revealed their political preferences in a questionnaire — hit the space bar on a keyboard when their computer monitor flashed the letter M. When the letter W appeared, they did nothing. Out of 500 flashes, M appeared 400 times, creating a "response habit." Subjects underwent an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure activity in the area of the brain that monitors conflict, the anterior cingular cortex.

The research showed that "people with more liberal political orientations were more responsive to information that was different from their habitual response or their expectations," Amodio says. In other words, the study suggests that liberals can handle change better than conservatives.

Marco Iacoboni, director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine and author of the recent book Mirroring People, believes that "The study demonstrates differences between liberals and conservatives not only in terms of brain responses, but in terms of behavior. The conservatives made more errors when they had to suppress a habitual response."

Amodio says the scientific community viewed the work positively, but lay reaction was mixed. Some readers assumed that a difference in brain function between liberals and conservatives suggests that we're born with our political leanings. Amodio disagrees, noting that "Eye color is hard-wired, not political attitudes."

"It might seem surprising that, based on a simple laboratory task, we find a relationship between political orientation and patterns of brain response," notes UCLA Clinical Psychology Professor Cindy Yee-Bradbury, one of Amodio's co-authors on the paper. "One practical implication is that in order to overcome [our own] biases, it may require a concerted effort to fully consider and embrace an alternative political perspective."

Now that's an idea that ought to get everybody's vote.

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