For years I’ve argued fruitlessly with people on the right of the political spectrum. Now, at last, the arguing is over. Differences in our political preferences really do reflect differences in the ways our brains work.
Recently I described fending off the critique of neurological reductionism applied, in particular, to my Prospect piece about politics and human nature. That piece, and the annual lecture which echoed some of its themes, were entitled ‘left brain, right brain’. The title implied that political positions were in some way ‘hard wired’ in brain areas. In fact, my focus was on how general insights into human nature could shed light on the claims made from different political traditions.
So, naturally, I was intrigued when sent a link to an article which genuinely does seem to imply that our political values reflect the structure of our brains. The piece, by a team from Northwestern University, Illinois, reports a negative correlation between a personality trait called Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) and activity levels in the part of the brain associated with empathising with people in pain.
SDO is so we are told:
Across human cultures...a stable and unique personality trait that predicts a wide variety of social and political attitudes. For instance people higher in SDO have been shown to support political ideologies that promote social hierarchy rather than egalitarianism, oppose public policies intended to attenuate group-based social inequality, and see societal roles that reify dominance hierarchy within social institutions (e.g. law enforcement rather than social work).
The research which compared subject’s personality assessments with fMRI scans concludes:
Individuals who indicated a greater desire for social dominance hierarchy showed less response when perceiving pain in others within front-insular regions critical to the ability to share and feel concern for the emotional salience of another person’s misfortune
So there we have it, just as I thought, right wing people have damaged brains which make them insensitive to the needs and feelings of their fellow citizens.
What do you mean 'things are more complicated than that'?
OK, I suppose there may be some very minor qualifications one might want to add:
Although it is often claimed that research has pinpointed where in the brain an activity happens, things often turn out to be more complicated. Complex thought processes are not modular but take place in many regions of the brain
A correlation isn’t quite the same as a cause. Experience and practice re-wire the brain. It could be people’s chosen or socially-shaped attitudes that cause their brain responses to change, rather than vice versa
Some people might even argue that it isn’t ‘SDOers’ that are the abnormal ones. Maybe the problem in the world is too many people who can’t control their empathetic responses, or fail to see the need for hierarchy to get things done and maintain social order. Perhaps, they might suggest, the world would be a better place if we empathised less and judged more.
And, yes, I have to recognise that a fondness for hierarchy isn’t entirely restricted to people on the right of the political spectrum. Come to think of it, I've known a few lefties not that strong on empathy
Also I suppose I should remain true to my own model of behaviour and recognise that even if some people demonstrably have brains which are less attuned to empathy this doesn’t mean they might not make life choices which balance their physiological predispositions, or live in a community with strong norms of compassion and charity
But, as any reasonable person would recognise, these are just minor quibbles. The research team of Chiao, Mathur, Harada and Lipke have confirmed what most of the people I hang around with already knew; left wing people are simply much nicer. And anyone who says different is ignoring the science.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.