The Cognitive Styles of Liberals and Conservatives

I just picked the January edition of Scientific American: Mind and over the next week or so will be reviewing many of the articles here. This a review #1. And it’s a short review for a short article by Siri Carpenter.

In Left Brains vs. Right Brains, Carpenter discusses a difference in cognitive style between self-identified liberals and conservatives observed in a number of studies. Research indicates that liberals are more tolerant of ambiguity than conservatives, who prefer more structure. Off the top of my head I can link this to a number of social observations. Firstly, conservatives seem to be more likely to be religious (religions provide structure and ambiguity resolution) and more perturbed by nontraditional behaviours. Then there’s the observation that people tend to become more liberal during their university years. This makes sense as they are learning that the more they know, the less they know. They learn that the world isn’t cut and dry. As a group, conservatives are less likely to attend university—conservatism is well-represented among populations that cannot afford to attend university, and then of course there is the staggering proportion of the far right in America that have a very negative view of liberal education.

Of course, I am not speaking of all conservatives here. There are socially liberal economically conservative persons (libertarians) who simply believe that they should not be forced to support others and believe that people should be able to live their lives as they see fit so long as they are not harming others (and this, too, is a tricky subject, but I’ll leave that for another time). They seem quite comfortable with notions of ambiguity and fluidity as opposed to rigidity in structure.

I should also point out that this article makes no suggestion of innate differences. In fact, there is every reason to believe that these differences are the product of differential socialization. I believe I recall from my studies of child development that liberalism tends to be promoted by child rearing in which the child is allowed to and encouraged to “talk back”, to offer their sides of situations and negotiate rewards, punishments and rules. And unsurprisingly this style of child rearing is relatively common in liberal families. On the other hand, more authoritarian style parenting—“these are the rules!”, “don’t talk back!”, etc.—is more common among conservative families. It’s pretty clear that if either of these parenting styles is more likely to promote tolerance of ambiguity, it is the liberal style.

Research in ambiguity tolerance in liberal versus conservative populations have demonstrated that tasks requiring conflict monitoring trigger more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals than conservatives. This brain region has been found to detect and respond to conflicting information.


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