Conservatives are frequently accused by their opposition of being fearful, resistant to change, inflexible, closed-minded and even (worst of all) categorically-minded. The implication is that their fear is personal and that as a result, they act out of appearance and primitive animal instinct, unlike enlightened progressives.
The news lit up with this latest tidbit:
Self-proclaimed right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion.
It is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe.
However, those aligned to the left had thicker anterior cingulates – which is an area associated with anticipation and decision-making. – Daily Mail
This article is a type we call a “cozy.” It takes published work, or reports thereof, and breaks it down into very simple emotional and isolated factual content, so that it can be easily digested by someone with an average IQ, average education and average amount of time to skim a newspaper. Let’s look at earlier research of this type:
In a simple experiment reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.
Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.
The results show “there are two cognitive styles — a liberal style and a conservative style,” said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research. – L.A. Times
This gives us more information: it’s not that some primitive part of the brain kicks in when Conservatives vote, but that they’re wired differently than liberals. Let’s look more into the differences in outlook between liberals and conservatives, which extend not just to politics but to all aspects of life and decision-making.
On Turiel’s definition of morality (“justice, rights, and welfare”), Christian and Hindu communities don’t look good. They restrict people’s rights (especially sexual rights), encourage hierarchy and conformity to gender roles, and make people spend extraordinary amounts of time in prayer and ritual practices that seem to have nothing to do with “real” morality. But isn’t it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition?
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. – Edge
What are the fundamental beliefs of these two groups? Liberals want equality and equal treatment for all individuals (a form of utilitarianism); conservatives want hierarchy and a type of organic whole society, where good behavior is encouraged and bad behavior discouraged in the context of the health of society as a whole.
Even more, the two groups have opposite cognitive directions. Liberals want to anticipate a possible response; conservatives want to pick from known responses by reality to similar human attempts. Liberals revel in the choice while conservatives delight in the result. This means that conservative thinking works by looking at consequences, while liberal thinking focuses on ideals and methods that might achieve them. Not surprisingly, the basic conflict is that progressives/liberals complain that conservative thinking is unequal, cruel and primitive like nature; in turn conservatives object to progressive thought in that it is purely hypothetical and untested, with seemingly more of a social/moral basis than a practical one.
This fits with the oversimplified but mostly accurate profile in the Daily Mail article:
Detection of emotions? How does that fit in? Let’s zoom in a bit:
Amygdala: Involved in signaling the cortex of motivationally significant stimuli such as those related to reward and fear in addition to social functions such as mating. – Jim Wales Group Blog
In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. Research indicates that, during fear conditioning, sensory stimuli reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli. The association between stimuli and the aversive events they predict may be mediated by long-term potentiation, a sustained enhancement of signalling between affected neurons. – Jim Wales Group Blog
Well, that’s a more complex view. Reward and fear, and social functions (presumably, involving the recognition of emotion and more importantly, the motivations of others) through a pattern of stimulus and response. The amygdala studies cause-effect relationships at the most basic level: what will get you killed, get you a reward, destroy your society or find you a mate.
Scientists found that the amygdala, a small structure in the temporal lobe of the brain, appears to be important to a rich and varied social life among adult humans. Their finding, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, provides insight into how abnormalities in regions of the brain may affect social behavior in neurologic and psychiatric disorders. – Northeastern University
This makes sense in that conservatives are socially-aware in a broader context, and most concerned with the health of the whole of their broader social networks. Liberals are more specialized, and where the Conservatives are more concerned with the past results of certain stimuli, liberals are more invested in the process of anticipation (result not known) and decision-making (which comes before the result).
Here we encounter what seems to be a paradox: conservatives, who pay attention to emotions and cause/effect relationships in the world around them, are more social — because they are able to make hard social decisions and still be effective. Liberals, who specialize in “cause” without knowledge of “effect,” are less fearful, but as a subset of being generally oblivious to the consequences of their actions, probably because their socialization process is not based on making hard choices. It is based on making others happy in that cheerful way that if five of us are hanging out with Pete, and Pete failed out of college, it’s someone else’s fault — not Pete’s. This is both a charming emotional tendency of humans and why humans can be so dangerously self-delusional. We project ourselves into social situations, which then requires those situations judge us, and as a result, we must neuter judgment.
This in turn brings us back to the concept of fear. Liberals accuse conservatives of being primitive dinosaurs who cannot handle an “enlightened” modern time with its liberated sexuality, lack of social mores, missing values consensus and averaging mixture of cultures. The only reason, they surmise, is that conservatives are afraid of these new things — without reason — and that we should view conservatives as our retarded younger siblings, a primitive holdover from the time when we were cannibalistic humanids.
But let’s consider fear. In the right context, it is a good thing. If you do not fear the minefield and walk right in, you might have a religious moment where you survive despite unbearable odds, but more likely, you will soon be a medical emergency. If you do not fear bad consequences enough, you will not be vigilant against them. In fact, denying fear might deny learning, because learning comes from fearing a repetition of bad consequences since better consequences can be had.
But liberals as we know from the above research are not inclined toward consequences. They’re inclined toward anticipation, and compassion, but not detection of emotion. They do nothing after the event; in fact, their approach is entirely projection. To the liberal mentality, the question isn’t “how will this turn out?” but “how does this make me feel?” — primitive or not, this is delusional and leaves out an important self-control mechanism humans rely on.
Some years ago, I quit liberalism because it does not achieve its goals. No other reason: I preferred being liberal, because all but a handful of my friends were extreme liberals, and liberalism “felt” better. I thought about the possibility in human beings, how anyone could become a king, and how with the right type of policy we could bring out the best in people. I honestly believed that if it were not for oppressive colonialism, aristocracy, government/fascism, corporations and religions, everyone would live an enlightened and happy life and do the right thing.
In fact, what bothered me about liberals was that it was the first part of cause-effect only. We looked at what effects we might like, and what causes might create them; we didn’t look at what similar causes had done in the past. The antihistorical leanings of liberals struck me as far worse than religious fundamentalists in denial of evolution; heck, with their emphasis on equality of ability and outcome as a means to political equality, liberals were in fact the biggest deniers of Darwin that I knew. Even further, when we did consider cause-effect pairs, such that we could say that every effect had a clear cause, and the when these repeated, we could count on them as being consistent like gravity, liberals like myself shut down. We couldn’t handle the historical record. We were so biased in favor of the equal individual, and thus so invested in the concept of our victimhood and the existence of fascist oppressors, that we took on a religious mindset that caused us to deny anything that smacked of the anti-liberal. But in the meantime, I was noticing that the things we did like were usually done for someone else, but according to our standards. Our charity was designed to make us feel good, more than help others. We’d just tell them how equal they were, hand them a textbook and hope they “worked hard” for the future.
In my experience, liberalism is a social phenomenon — if you consider socialization a way of sticking with a group. You flatter the group, you pander to its individuals, and you become popular. But the essence of this socialization is not bonding with other people but the opposite, which is making them like you while you invest as little as possible in their actual welfare (a condition called “cool” or “detached”) even if you invest a lot in extending to them tokens of social acceptance, like equality, faith, love, hope, etc. All become cheapened because they are not ends in themselves, but means to an end, and that end is itself a means to another end: socialization is the means by which the liberal climbs socially and makes himself or herself stand above the crowd of other equals.
Conservatism on the other hand is primitive like nature — primitive in the best way, like photosynthesis or the reflexes of a hunter. It views the social group as an organic whole with a clear goal, and so to it the question is not how to pander to others, but how to organize people to work together such that we are able to confront difficult truths and inequality and see the reason in them, and thus accept our place and move on toward our goal. Conservatism does not view socialization as a means to the end of an individual, but a means to the end of an organic collaboration between all individuals to achieve something, like building a better society or fixing problems using proven methodology.
Liberalism centers itself on cause without effect. It denies consequences and idealizes emotional/moral situations where cause and effect are the same because both are part of the same symbol, or signaling, to others in a social context. Results? We don’t need them. We need everyone feeling content. Conservatives tend to value cause to effect reasoning, as paralleled in the conservative ideal of all methods and things being means to an end; conservatives don’t self-censor on the basis of method, but on the basis of results.
Where things get complicated: modern liberals and conservatives, because of who their supporters are, have gotten this issue somewhat confused. Conservatives have embraced industry, religion and the family; liberals have embraced the underclasses, entertainment industry and social elites. Much of what we know about these groups is tainted by their support of one or more of these entities.
Yet this brings us back to fear. Conservatives fear bad results, liberals fear bad methods. Yet fearing methods brings us back to the primitive days of humanity, when people feared angering the rain-gods. We only rose out of this state when people began to see rain as having physical causes, and those originating not in an arbitrary God but in a logical universe, whether shepherded by a God or not. This prevented society from spending too much time pacifying the gods and not enough time installing irrigation. Fear when misplaced is superstition, but fear when absent is oblivion.
While liberals find it primitive, the conservative outlook is in fact a reaction to the primitive tendency of humanity to ignore systematic cause/effect reasoning in favor of “intuitive” appearance/emotion/social logic based decisions. Where liberals can have either no God, or a personal God, conservatives are more believers in the sanctity of the universe as it is, and study it through cause/effect relationships, and feel no need to impose “equality” on it to “fix” it.
Many people have believed that the mind stands outside nature; it is a part of us that transcends the material world and our biology.
Evolutionary theory completely overthrows this view. From an evolutionary perspective, it is impossible to maintain that the mind stands outside nature. Instead, it is a tiny fragment of nature, valued only by those tiny fragments of nature that possess it. Mind is not something separate from matter; it is a process embodied in matter.
Now here’s the point: When we fully digest that the mind is the activity of an evolved brain, it radically transforms our view of the mind’s place in the universe – and our view of the universe itself. The physical universe ceases to be an unconscious object, observed and explored by conscious minds which somehow stand above or outside it. Conscious minds are part of the physical universe, as much as rocks and potato peelers. Our consciousness is not simply consciousness of the universe; our consciousness is a part of the universe, and thus the universe itself is partially conscious. When you contemplate the universe, part of the universe becomes conscious of itself.
Similarly, our knowledge of the universe is not something separate from the universe; it is a part of the universe. Thus, for humans to know the universe is for the universe to know itself. As Carl Sagan put it, â€˜humans are the stuff of the cosmos examining itself’. And Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how this could be so – how clumps of matter could come to be organized in such a way that they are able to contemplate themselves and the rest of the cosmos. – PsychologyToday
In the liberal view, the universe is arbitrary and we are opposed to that universe, so we should each do whatever makes us feel better about this situation, and no one should tell us otherwise. Consequences be damned, in this view. In the conservative view, we are logical products of a logical universe, and should pay attention to its methods so that we can find ways to achieve our goals which are collective and organic, not individual. In this sense, conservatism does not reach out to the exceptions and the exceptionally pitied cases, but tries to protect all by giving them a rational place to live. If that’s primitive and fearful, I’ll take it over the option anyday.