People who describe themselves as being politically liberal can better suppress a habitual response when faced with situations in which that response is incorrect, according to research that used a simple cognitive test to compare liberal and conservative thinkers. Tasks that require such “conflict monitoring” also triggered more activity in the liberals’ anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region geared to detect and respond to conflicting information.
Past research has shown that liberals and conservatives exhibit differing cognitive styles, with liberals being more tolerant of ambiguity and conservatives preferring more structure. The new paper “is exciting because it suggests a specific mechanism” for that pattern, comments psychologist Wil Cunningham of Ohio State University, who was not involved with the study. In the experiment, subjects saw a series of letters flash quickly on a screen and were told to press a button when they saw M, but not W. Because M appeared about 80 percent of the time, hitting the button became a reflex—and the more liberal-minded volunteers were better able to avoid the knee-jerk reaction.
The study's lead author, psychologist David Amodio of New York University, emphasizes that the findings do not mean that political views are predetermined. “There are a lot of steps between conflict monitoring and political ideology, and we don’t know what those steps are,” he says. Although the neurocognitive process his group measured is so basic that it is most likely in place in early childhood, he notes that “the whole brain is very malleable.” Social relationships and other environmental factors also shape one's political leanings.