Left Brain, Right Brain; One Brain, Two Brain: The Difference Between Conservatives and Liberals

Differences Between Conservatives and Liberals

#ScienceFact: your ability to recognize an irregularly drawn circle as a circle or tolerate looking at disgusting pictures predicts your political orientation.

There is a natural tendency to view foreigners are being dirty, diseased, and immoral. Conservatives are so sensitive to difference that they see liberals as “damn filthy fer’ners.”

Conservatives are more prone to lying and accepting lies, more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking, and more likely to have dark tetrad personality characteristics.

I know, shocker, right? Yeah, they just don’t get it as clearly and as well as liberals do. Go figure.

In another shocking finding, conservatives view the world as much more dangerous and are more risk averse.

There are real verifiable concrete differences between conservatives and liberals. These differences are #ScienceFact. The differences have been documented here in the anals of Ye Olde Blogge (see the sidebar for a few of our favorites).

It is important to know these differences because it can guide our responses to the other side and maybe, just maybe, help us mitigate some of the worst effects those differences are creating.

Okay, we won’t be able to blunt the worst effects or maybe any of the effects that they’ve had on MAGA, but we could perhaps stop the people who are ruthlessly and cruelly exploiting those effects for their own political and financial gain.

Once it reaches the MAGA crowd, it pretty much is as possible to stop as a snowball gathering moss rolling downhill in Hell. The trick is to stop the snowball from ever starting that fateful decent.

While none of these findings are like shocking or anything — we’ve all known this intuitively, right? — it is nice to have some our deepest suspicions confirmed: your favorite drunk uncle really is just an asshole who is really nothing like you. But, he can barely help it; he was born that way.

This post will help us understand these differences better, develop some ideas on how to put them to good use, and help us all feel superior to MAGA, which is the goal of every partisan, right?

Our differences really are based on three difficult to change parts of our psychology: personality, biology, and genetics.

Personality is the characteristics and qualities of our thinking, values, and behavior that we bring with us to every situation. It is stable and slow to change. It is who we are, but different clusters of personality traits lend themselves to different political ideologies.

Biology, in this case, refers to the structures of our brain. There are key structures that are different in the brains of most conservatives. These key differences — to be detailed below — make political orientation part of our neurodivergence from one another.

Genetics, of course, means that political leanings are passed from parents to children, and there is strong evidence that ideology is as heritable as height.

Personality Differences

The conservative personality values security, safety, predictability, and authoritarianism. They want things to stay the same and not to change. To them, the world is a dangerous place. We have to be careful. We have to move with caution. Too much change, too soon, and too fast could really destroy us all. We should just continue what we were doing, since, obviously, it is what got us here. It worked.

The liberal personality sees the world as less dangerous and more full of possibility. There’s a whole wide world out there of things we ought to try! Where conservatives want things to stay the same, liberals value the novel, the new, the nuanced differences. It is the belief that things can get better if we sincerely try to make them better.

It can be summed up in some of our favorite biases and heuristics and other cognitive trends:

  • RISK AVERSION: Everyone hates risks, just some of us hate them more than others. As a group, conservatives are much more risk averse than liberals. It affects the way we perceive each other and the world. Conservatives appear stodgy, slow, and old fashioned; liberals spend way too much time on their lawns.
  • AMBIGUITY TOLERANCE: The more conservative you are, the more uncomfortable ambiguity makes you. You want things clear cut, black and white, preferably more white than black, if you know what I mean. Liberals, on the other hand, not only can tolerate ambiguity, they can see value in exploring the nuanced differences.
  • NEGATIVITY BIAS: Negativity bias is the cognitive tendency to weight negative events more heavily than positive ones. It is the glass half full with the top half having been stolen and the glass is so stinking dirty that you wouldn’t drink from it no matter how full it is. Conservatives tend toward negativity bias. Surprised?
  • EMPATHY vs PUNISHMENT: While these are not biases or heuristics, but they are clearly traits of personality. Liberals tend to have more empathy for more people because they recognize more human beings — read that Black, Brown, and Asian people — as being like them and deserving of the things that white people get for just existing. Conservatives reserve their empathy for a smaller — white — swath of humanity before they realize that they look like them. Conservatives tend to over value the efficacy of punishment to affect or control undesireable behavior and count more behavior as undesireable.

There are other clear cognitive and emotional tendencies that cluster or correlate with political outlook. Feel free to discuss them in the comments. I’d love to discuss them with you.

All of these cognitive-emotional tendencies are linked to fear and sense of danger, so they color your perceptions and in turn your recollections.

Biological Differences

In as much as there are neurological analogues to some of these personality characteristics. The brain is a complicated place, and there are many structures that work together to produce our behaviors and attitudes. We will not enter into a deep discussion of how the brain functions, even though it is very interesting, but just touch upon them.

  • THE ANTERIOR CINGULATE CORTEX is part of the frontal lobe that helps us allocate attention, anticipate reward, make decisions, apply ethics and morality, and control our impulses. In particular, it helps us detect errors and resolve conflicts. It tends to be larger in liberals than in conservatives. Larger means more neurons and greater connections to the other parts that it works with. Thus, liberals tend to be more concerned about errors, especially inconsistencies between what someone is saying they believe and how they act or the policies they endorse.
  • THE AMYGDALA is an almond shaped dohicky at the end of the hippocampus that helps us with emotions, especially fear and anger. It is one of the reasons that events with strong emotional components form such strong immediate memories. It is a big part of the fight or flight response. It helps monitor the environment and reacts to surprises. It is larger in conservatives. Hunh. Go figure.

Interestingly, the wanting system, part of the mesolimbic dopamine reward system, splits with some of the neurons leading to the terminus at the anterior cingulate cortex and some at the amygdala. The ACC helps us evaluate our values and wants and how they fit together. The amygdala helps us figure out whether we should be angry, scared, or some other emotion.

The implication of this is not clear to me — if it is clear to you, tell us about it in the comments — but it seems like if the hit from the liking system is smaller than anticipated, conservatives, especially, are likely to react angrily or with sadness and liberals are likely to try and figure out what went wrong.

Since the ACC is further connected to the frontal lobe and higher order thinking skills, it is likely that they are more likely to activated in liberals, and the amygdala connected to the fight or flight system, it is more likely that that system is going to be activated.

Genetic Differences

Obviously, the biological underpinnings of personality are genetic. The size of your amygdala and ACC, like the color of your eyes and the size of your hands is governed by genes. In fact, it is clear from twin studies that political ideology are as heritable as any physical characteristic. And, like those physical characteristics, they are malleable.

Tall parents tend to have tall children, but their exact height is determined by the amount of protein they have in their diets at certain ages. In other words, just because your ACC is stunted and your amygdala is ginormous, you don’t have to be a conservative asshat. And, just because you have thick and healthy ACC and tiny amygdala, you can still grow up to be a Bernie Princess pitching fits in 2024 because Bernie lost to Clinton in 2016 and it as okay not to vote in 2016 or to vote for Jill Stein. It was! It was! It was! And I’m going to hold my breath until you say it was okay!

And just like you can hold your breath until you pass out, you are not a slave to your biology. These impulses can be overridden. You can recognize that Black Americans are just as American as white Americans are and deserving of the same rights and privileges. You may no like to watch two men kissing — but, really, who doesn’t like to watch two women, hunh? Be honest! — but recognize that love is love and they have as much right to kiss each other as you have the right to kiss whoever it is you kiss. You may believe that sex should only be for procreational purposes, but you can recognize and accept that other people don’t hold your beliefs no matter how sincere or deeply held they are.

Our rational brains can and do override our emotional brain. We may have evolved for that it to take time and effort, but we live in a calorie-rich environment and can afford to burn a few in that direction.

While conservatives have tendencies to misinterpret the world as being worse than it is and accept inconsistencies from their politicians, and create fanciful snowflake safe harbors when their impossible to meet demands aren’t being met, they are capable of change. We can use these insights to help us shape or media environments and messages to conservatives to help them feel less threatened and accept the changes that are happening in the world whether they want them to or not. But, it becomes more important than ever to limit the damage from the CRT panic and rollback of our rights and the effectiveness of our government.

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Image Attribution

One fish two fish red fish blue fish” by ffg is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

23 replies »

  1. Thanks for putting this all together, good sir.

    This subject has been a dominant theme in my rants since the lies and wars of the Cheney Administration, and reading John Dean’s excellent first book on authoritarian personalities,”Conservatives without Conscience”.

    He should know.

    I also recommend his newer book co-authored by Bob Altemeyer, “Authoritarian Nightmare, Trump and His Followers”.

    The nightmare is compounded by the fanatic loyalty authoritarian personalities have for their leaders. (And they accuse us of “identity politics”.)

    I don’t know how this can end well…but it’s clear they must be defeated and their leaders dishonored and held accountable.

    Corpo-media hucksters like Chuck Todd are not helping, wondering, “Do you think the country can handle prosecuting a former president?”

    As if Trump supporters are “the country”…Sheesh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Dave!

      Thank you for the links. They were quite informative. It is an amazing thing that our differences can be so basic but still surmountable. It is the ruthless and sadistic exploitation of these differences for personal profit that drives me up a wall. Especially, when it is so clear that that is what is happening.

      When profit is your motive, profit is all that matters. The ends justify the means. Now that we have a profit driven media, nothing else matters.



  2. Thank you. I had long suspected such, but I’ve never seen it put together so well. My brother and I are political opposites. The sons of a psychoanalyst, we are so much alike yet our world views couldn’t be more different. This story perfectly described our relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Garth!

      The luck of the genetic draw, ain’t it? Even though we are not slaves to our biology, it can be damn difficult to overcome. My sister and I are also polar opposites. I don’t know if I could ever get her to change even if I would dare to try — the grief wouldn’t be worth it.

      It’s funny that you mention psychoanalysis. I just finished reading “The Brain and the Inner World,” which was a psychoanalist’s attempt to reconcile modern neuropsychology with Freud. I guess it is it is just another example of Jungian synchronicity.

      I’ve been following the emerging literature on the differences between conservatives and liberals. I was glad to put several of the findings together and help shed some light on why we seem so far apart and still have hope for reconciliation.



  3. Here’s a question about L versus C cognitive difference about which I’ve seen no data: Is there, between these two groups a difference in the ability or facility in learning a second (or, more) language, and if so, does that difference increase with age (the guess being that it is less in early childhood and greater in adulthood)? My hunch is that liberals are better at it and maintain that advantage into adulthood more than conservatives. This is a sub hunch of my hunch about why Homo S won out over our cousin hominids, the ability to learn a second language and to keep learning languages into adulthood. The key evidence being that we developed trade networks and they apparently did not. You have to be able to communicate with speakers of other languages (instead of just knocking them over the head because they talk funny, and taking their stuff) to do that. Consider, the difficulty, even to the point of murderous rage, that some conservatives have when the trans and non-binary folks start talking about pronouns. Anyway, there’s more, but that’s a start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      What an interesting thought. I haven’t seen anything about correlates with language learning, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were. Language is a complex whole brain exercise, though. It may be that the difference in language acquisition is based more on flexibility vs rigidity in thinking and ability to think abstractly.

      Personally, my biggest issue with learning new languages is listening comprehension. I have significant difficulty decoding what is being said. It limits my ability to communicate and few people, teachers and Ma Belle Femme included, have the patience to help me overcome it.

      My experience with learning and teaching language and witnessing others learn languages makes me think that if there is a correlate with political ideology, it will be with a specific area of language learning. For example, I doubt that auditory processing disorders would correlate with political ideology. But, bilingual adults show a greater capacity to think outside the box and more lateral thinking strategies. It has long been thought that the experience of thinking in two languages trains the brain in this thinking pattern, but it could be that there is a biologically-based resistance to thinking laterally that inhibits language acquisition and that correlates with political ideology.

      Also, language relates closely to nuance and ambiguity tolerance so those who need more black and white, this word means that might could have more difficulty. Negativity bias could also play a role in an inability or unwillingness to endure the errors nd mistakes that come along with language learning. Conservatives could amplify the failures and feel discouraged in their efforts.

      Lastly, conservatives may see language learning as less important and self-select for not learning language or putting as much effort into it.

      An interesting thought, though, and something I will keep an eye out for just out of personal interest.


      Liked by 1 person

        • And that negativity bias — always assume the worst! It’s got to be a threat.

          Every time I see some conservative person having a meltdown in public because something violates their sense of propriety, I’m thankful that I don’t have to go through life so out of control and so angry. It just can’t be healthy.


          Liked by 1 person

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