The Democrats, we hear, have begun to lose their heads. As election polls lurched in favor of John McCain during the past few weeks, the notion of a liberal freakout became a right-wing talking point: Michael Gerson called the Obama campaign “rootless, reactive and panicky“; Carly Fiorina announced that “the Democratic Party is in a full-throated panic over Sarah Palin”; Rush Limbaugh put the left in “a full-fledged panic mode.” Funny, then, that the neuropundits should have reached the opposite conclusion: According to a study of political psychology published last Thursday in Science, conservatives tend to be the jumpier lot.
The researchers called 46 political partisans into their laboratory at the University of Nebraska, affixed electrodes to their fingertips and eyelids, and measured sweat output and eye blinks in response to a series of startling stimuli. (Subjects were forced to endure images of bloody faces and maggot-infested wounds, as well as sudden blasts of white noise.) The results: Social conservatives—those who supported the death penalty, the Patriot Act, prayer in school, and the like—sweated more, and blinked more intensely, than the liberals.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In an appendix, the authors declare “that our results do not suggest that one type of physiological response to threat is more normal or ‘better’ than another. … Political opponents may simply experience the world differently and this situation may be why intensely political people tend to talk past each other.” So they’re not calling out conservatives for being sweaty, blinky, fraidy-cats; they’re merely providing a dispassionate, scientific analysis of partisan politics. Why is our country so sharply divided into red and blue? Could it have something to do with those confounded “neural activity patterns,” hard-wired into our brains from birth?
That’s the soft sell, at least, when it comes to political brain science. Among the neuropundits, though, the nature/nurture question stands in for a more pressing, and more partisan, concern. For the past five years, the left-wing researchers who dominate the field have sought to explain—in purely rational terms, of course—the failures of Democratic politics and the rise of political conservatism. Sometimes the work is cast as behavioral economics: Why do working-class Americans vote against their economic interests? But the agenda can be quite explicit: How come those damn Republicans keep winning elections? And what can we do about it?
The theoretical basis for this work emerged in 2003, when psychologist John T. Jost and three colleagues published a review of more than 50 years worth of data on the personality traits of right-wing ideologues. In “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” (PDF), they concluded that the red-state mind-set stems from a set of “psychological needs,” including a deep anxiety about death, lack of self-esteem, and intolerance of ambiguity. As a result, conservatives are “less integratively complex” than liberals, more obedient by disposition, and inclined to cling to what they know. “For a variety of psychological reasons, then, right-wing populism may have a more consistent appeal than left-wing populism,” explained one of the authors, a professor of public policy at University of California-Berkeley.
Four years and one failed Kerry campaign later, a scientist named David Amodio got together with Jost to flesh out the theory with actual recordings from the human brain. They used scalp electrodes to monitor the neural activity of liberals and conservatives who were engaged in a simple button-pressing task and discovered some significant differences between the two groups. First, the authors said, the conservatives tended to make more mistakes on the task. (Subjects had to press the space bar whenever they saw the letter M flash on a screen but hold back their response when a W turned up instead.) Second, the liberal brain scans revealed “stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.” That is to say, liberals were less prone to error and better able to process complex, conflicting information. (Click here for Slate’s William Saletan’s critique of the Amodio paper.)
Last week I went to hear Jost and Amodio speak about the conservative brain at a New York University event dedicated to “The Neuroscience of Elections and Human Decision-Making.” This felt less like a science seminar than a special-interest meet-up for Obama supporters. Amodio finished his presentation with a series of speculations about how voter psychology would affect the upcoming election: The McCain campaign, he said, could win over swing voters by blurring or stretching the truth; Obama might continue to make “qualified, informed statements” that appeal only to his base.
When someone in the audience pointed out that the researchers themselves appeared to be highly partisan observers, Amodio barked, “Big deal!” He explained that scientists do tend to be liberal, but that’s on account of their predilection for the truth and tolerance for uncertainty. (They’re also more creative than most other people, he added, which reinforces their bias to the left.)
So it is that the most prominent and prolific neuropundits happen to be paid Democratic consultants and professional thinkers on the left. Take psychologist and strategist Drew Westen, who went mass-market with the science of us vs. them in his 2007 book, The Political Brain. There he argues that the Republicans are more skilled at activating the neural emotional circuits of swing voters while Democrats have “an irrational emotional commitment to rationality.” (Last Wednesday, Westen told the New York Times that the conservatives are “taking advantage of how our brains work.”)
Then in June, Berkeley professor and frequent Huff Po contributor George Lakoff presented a nearly identical thesis—that Democrats are too hung up on truth and rationality—in his own analysis of voter psychology, The Political Mind. Both Lakoff and Westen present brain science as a strategic resource for the Obama campaign—a nerdy secret weapon. Up to now, they say, Democrats have been so brainy that they haven’t connected with the brains of voters. But what if liberals used their knowledge of the brain to their advantage?
The fact that all neuropundits are liberals can be explained by the fact that most of the research originates in university labs. Jost, Amodio, Westen, and Lakoff are all participants in an educational system that tilts overwhelmingly to the left. We’re not just talking about the Marxists and post-structuralists in the humanities—in 2002, Daniel Klein and Andrew Western tallied the political affiliations of professors at Berkeley and Stanford and found that even in the hard sciences, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a factor of almost 8 to 1. Among professors of neurology and neuroscience, Klein and Western counted 68 registered Democrats against just six Republicans.
A partisan science of partisan politics invites grave concerns about both its methodology and interpretation. Consider last week’s paper in Science, which purported to show that conservatives were more anxious and easily frightened than liberals. Is that because their brains are wired differently? Or maybe it’s just nerve-racking to be summoned into a lab and quizzed about your political beliefs by a bunch of university professors who almost certainly disagree with you.
You might also ask why the results had to be framed in terms of right-wing fearfulness and anxiety. The liberals could just as well have been described as having a weird inability to register emotion. (Indeed, a closer look at how the subjects were classified suggests that this interpretation makes more sense.) Likewise, the Amodio paper from 2007 demeaned conservatives for failing to process complex or conflicting stimuli rather than calling the liberals detail-obsessed and distractible.
Back in 2003, Jost and his colleagues made a compelling case that conservatives tend to be more deferential to authority and afraid of risk. But even this basic finding doesn’t seem to account for party platforms. Why are liberals so conservative when it comes to the environment, endlessly harping on traditional farming practices and the uncertainty surrounding genetically modified crops, cloned meat, and the use of pesticides? And if right-wingers are so obedient, why do they favor smaller government and less gun control?
The irony of this liberal slant is that, from a strictly rational,blue-brain point of view, professional scientists have no reason to side with the Democrats. The data show that both political parties have pursued overwhelmingly pro-science agendas during the past 65 years. (If anything, research funding has tended to increase more under Republican presidents than under Democrats.) The Bush White House may have frustrated many in the community with its aggressive politicization of government science, but both candidates in this election cycle have spoken out for scientific integrity. Both accept that global warming is caused by human activity, and McCain appears to be just as committed as Obama to repeal the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
In the end, the liberal neuropundits may end up hurting their cause more than they help it. The most industrious among them have already begun to spin off private consulting firms, like Drew Westen’s Westen Strategies, that hawk spurious science back to the party establishment. Consider high-powered Democratic strategist Bill Knapp, who joined up with former Clinton aide Tom Freedman to create FKF Applied Science, a neuromarketing firm that’s already managed to get its bogus electoral brain-scans into the New York Times and the Atlantic.
These guys are selling junk. And it looks like the Democrats are their customers.
June 18, 2008: “Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit?”
Feb. 5, 2008: “Obama Builds Lead Inside Voters’ Brains!”
Dec. 7, 2007: “Return of the Neuropundits!”
Nov. 14, 2007: “Neuropundits Gone Wild!”