Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism

David Amodio (who got his Ph.D. here at Wisconsin in 2003) is now at NYU, and with a group of collaborators reports on neuronal correlates of political stance (PDF here). Here is their abstract, followed by a bit of text and a figure:
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.

In our study, conflict-related ACC activity was indexed by two ERP components. ERPs are scalp-recorded voltage changes reflecting the concerted firing of neurons in response to a psychological event. The response-locked error-related negativity (ERN), which peaks at approximately 50 ms following an incorrect behavioral response, reflects conflict between a habitual tendency (for example, the Go response) and an alternative response (for example, to inhibit behavior in response to a No-Go stimulus. We also examined the No-Go N2 component, which is believed to reflect conflict-monitoring activity associated with the successful inhibition of the prepotent Go response on No-Go trials7. Relationships between political orientation and these neurocognitive indices were examined using correlation analyses (two-tailed).

Figure 1. The relation between political orientation and a neurocognitive index of conflict monitoring.
(a) Political liberalism was associated with larger No-Go error-related negativity (ERN) amplitudes, as indicated by more negative scores, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to response conflict. (b) ERP waveforms corresponding to No-Go errors, with the waveform for correct Go responses subtracted, are shown for both liberal and conservative participants (response made at 0 ms; ERN peaked at 44 ms postresponse), with the inset showing the voltage map of the scalp distribution of the ERN. (c) Source localization indicates a dorsal anterior cingulate generator for the ERN, computed at peak amplitude (red line in panel b).


  1. Anonymous5:47 PM

    I had expected a better common-man explanation of the experiment and of the results. Instead, I think I read what must be an inside joke amongst one end of the political spectrum. As for the data, it seems the experiment uses a poor statistical sample showing five times as many "liberals" as it does "conservatives." Certainly the authors had access to many more subjects. The reader cannot assess how those labels were assigned nor, indeed, of they are in any way valid. Also, the data chart seems better fit with other than a liner algorithm. Theis short abstrtact does not reflect good science.

  2. Anonymous12:05 AM

    RE: neuro correlates in libs and conservatives:
    A basic scientific design flaw invalidates this study: the authors used a so-called single item criterion, thus allowing the subjects to self-select. This is only okay if one is testing for the validity of self-selection as a dependent variable that changes in an experimental condition. Here they basically used the self-report as an independent variable and just assumed it was valid. This is hopelessly naive from the point of view of social psychologists who understand the social nature of attitude clusters.