The brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political differences may, at least in part, be hard-wired.
David Amodio, Assistant Professor of Psychology, New York University, is a self-described social neuroscientist. Using methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging in combination with behavioral measures he examines the interactions of the brain with its social environment.
Intrigued by previous studies showing strong links between political persuasion and certain personality traits as well as the fact that such affinities between political views and “cognitive style” can be heritable, Dr. Amodio brought together 43 test subjects.
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.”
As to implications, Dr. Amodio stated, “The neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood,” and are probably rooted in part in our genetic heritage. But even if genes may provide a blueprint for more liberal or conservative orientations, they are shaped substantially by one’s environment over the course of development.”
Which leaves the question of “nature or nurture” still unanswered – at least for the moment.
But it does provide interesting thought for coaching. As we consider our political views and actions we do well to remember that our first and most powerful responses tend to be emotion-based. And so we learn to factor in emotional bias. This study suggests that we factor in as well the idea that political leaning and cognitive style may have some degree of hard-wiring involved.
Since perceived threat, one of the fundamentals behind conflict-monitoring, drives certain predictable behavioral responses, we know in advance that to have any sort of constructive dialog across such divides we need to alleviate the threat. Issues aside, the threats for conservatives and liberals are processed differently according to this study. Recognition of that fact can let us make allowances for differences in thinking styles rather than attributing differences to intent. And that at least adds another tool for building an agreed-upon arena for dialog if nothing else.