Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation. Stronger conservatism (versus liberalism) was associated with less neurocognitive sensitivity to response conflicts. At the behavioral level, conservatives were also more likely to make errors of commission. Although a liberal orientation was associated with better performance on the response-inhibition task examined here, conservatives would presumably perform better on tasks in which a more fixed response style is optimal.
Here’s a full description of the experiment in the paper, for you unlucky non-subscribers:
Participants watched a computer screen that displayed the letter “M” or “W” for a split second in rapid succession.
The researchers asked half of the group to press a computer key whenever they saw “M” but not “W.” The other half of the group got the opposite assignment – press the button for “W” but not “M.”
Most of the time, participants saw the letter that was supposed to prompt them to press the computer key. But 20% of the time, they saw the other letter and were supposed to refrain from pushing the computer key.
Compared with conservatives, liberals were more likely to refrain from pressing the computer key when the wrong letter appeared. Liberals also showed more activity in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in monitoring conflicting information, note Amodio and colleagues.
The paper is short. Only two pages (supplementary materials comprise another six.) They only had 42 subjects, only 8 of whom – if I am counting the little dots on Figure 1 aright – self-identified as conservatives of some stripe. (Four more are right on the line between left and right.) I’m no social scientist, but that seems like a low number, although the 42 point graph as a whole is quite striking.
The symbolism of sullen conservatives going for ‘W’ again and again, even when it is explicitly counter-indicated by the earnest technicians, is rather rich. I suppose.
One moderately interesting conceptual point is that the experiment reminds us that common jibes against conservatism are insufficiently … Newtonian, you might say. Russell Kirk starts off The Conservative Mind, quoting the likes of F.J.C. Hearnshaw: “It is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.” And here’s one from my files:
But, from a Newtonian perspective, the flip-side of ‘a body at rest tends to stay at rest’ is … well, doubling-down again if you have lost the last several bets; starting a couple more wars if that is what you’ve been up to for a while; these things count as not changing anything, ergo they are in a sense ‘conservative’ although they may hardly count as restful or sedentary strategies.
I don’t mean just to be snarky. Beyond that, it’s an interesting question: how do you define ‘conservative’, in the relevant sense? It’s supposed to be: doing what has been proven to work. But, then again: it’s supposed to be, doing what you were doing before.