It goes something like this: people support conservative political positions because their brains make them oversensitive to threat. For example…

“This brain structure is involved in emotion processing, and is especially reactive to fearful stimuli. It is possible that an oversized amygdala could create a heightened sensitivity that may cause one to habitually overreact to anything that appears to be a potential threat, whether it actually is one or not. This disproportionate fear response could explain how, for example, Bush’s administration was able to gather wide public support amongst conservatives for invading Iraq.” - Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives' Political Attitudes: Can brain differences explain conservatives' fear-driven political stances? - Bobby Azarian/Psychology Today, explaining why “conservatives’ brains are more reactive to fear”.

The amygdala is the usual culprit in these narratives. Often described as the “fear center” of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be somewhat bigger, more active, or better connected to other brain areas in conservatives than it is in liberals. That’s what the news stories say anyway. But read the actual studies and the picture becomes a bit muddy. For one thing, there aren’t that many conservatives in these studies - a point made by the authors of  Conservatism and the neural circuitry of threat: economic conservatism predicts greater amygdala-BNST connectivity during periods of threat vs safety. Despite the confident title, the authors later confess: ”conservatives were underrepresented in our sample. The most common response to our political alignment question was ‘Somewhat Liberal’ with no participants endorsing the ‘Very Conservative’ option…. this problem is not unique to our study”. That means they are basing their conclusions about the brains of “conservatives” on the brain scans of the few participants who described themselves as “somewhat conservative.” Same thing with the highly cited Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. But you can’t draw conclusions about an entire group when you only have data on a subgroup, especially when there are well documented subgroup differences. For instance, “somewhat conservative” study participants may very well be moderate conservatives, which are a whole different animal than traditional conservatives.

But this post isn’t about how scientists and journalists overstate or misrepresent research findings out of ambition and bias. (They do, all the time*.) For the purpose of this post I’m actually going to accept that, on average, those on the right side of the political spectrum are somewhat more attuned to threat than those on the left - at least certain kinds of threat (not including climate change, GMOs, or inequality). This may or may not have to do with brain differences.

Sensitivity to threat is a good thing. It just means sensitivity to the possibility of danger or risk. To be sensitive to threat does not mean one is anxious, fearful, neurotic, or over-reactive. Researchers and science writers seem to assume that a strong neural response to threat implies something about a person’s state or personality but that’s not necessarily the case. For instance, the authors of one study note: “although we did find increased neural reactivity to threat associated with conservatism, conservatives did not report greater changes in state anxiety from threat to safety.” In this particular case, the authors speculate the conservative participants were just fooling themselves.

But there’s other evidence that one can be risk-sensitive and relatively unstressed at the same time. Take business owners, for whom sensitivity to risk is an essential job requirement. Yet personality studies have shown business owners to be rather emotionally resilient: risk tolerant, stress tolerant, adaptable, and tolerant of financial insecurity. Business owners also tend to be conservative and decades of personality research have not uncovered a link between conservatism and anxiety.

Furthermore, effective decision-making depends on sensitivity to threat. No surprise, then, that the amygdala plays an essential role in decision-making, mostly by emotionally “weighing” possible choices in the decision process. One can’t make wise decisions without the amygdala’s input. That’s why I want the amygdalas of our politicians and government bureaucrats to be robust, active, and well-connected to the hard-thinking parts of their brains. When formulating or implementing policies, I want them to ask questions like:

  • What could go wrong with this policy?

  • What are the opportunity costs of this policy?

  • Are the costs worth the benefits?

  • What are the trade-offs?

  • What might be unintended consequences?

  • What alternative ways could achieve a similar or the same policy goal?

  • How reversible is the policy?

  • What is the back-up plan?

The capacity to imagine future danger and take constructive steps to avert it is called “adaptive anticipation”. Adaptive adaptation starts with sensitivity to threat. It ends with effective problem solving.

* I was a research study coordinator for years and saw this tendency in action all the frickin’ time.


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