Evidence of our differences

The scientific evidence is mounting: we are predisposed to come in two main and differing varieties, conservative or liberal.

So conclude three social scientists in their new book, “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.”

They are hardly the first to make this observation, as they readily admit. Yet they look at recent studies that reinforce this widely-held viewpoint with neurological findings: these differences may be hard-wired into us.

Or, as put in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy song from the 1880s,

“Every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little liberal

Or else a little conservative.”

In G & S’s satirical silliness, “liber-al” rhymes with “gal” and “conserva-tive” with “a-live.”

While a few of us may be totally apolitical, or exactly in between, the vast majority of us lean one way or the other.

In 2007 researcher David Amodio studied these differences and concluded that “political attitudes are dispositional in nature, almost more like personalities. They’re not necessarily a choice.”

The study had college students identify themselves politically, ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” They then performed a simple test: pushing a button when a W flashed briefly on a screen but not when an M so appeared.

Participants were wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the brain’s conflict monitoring zone. Liberals showed more such brain activity and made fewer mistakes.

Amodia noted that liberals were more adept at recognizing a mistake and less likely to push the wrong button again “because they use that part of their brain differently.”

Reporting on this, the Concord (NH) Monitor thought this could explain John Kerry’s so-called flip-flopping on the Iraq war and President Bush’s apparent inability to admit the invasion may have been a mistake.

It could also explain, the Monitor suggested, Vice President Cheney’s split-second wrong decision while hunting, mistaking a fellow hunter for a flushed quail and shooting him in the face:

“His longtime friend Harry Whittington in no way resembles a small bird. But when forced to recognize that fact in a flash, Cheney failed. His genes apparently let him down.”

The Monitor’s final comments showed both wisdom and humor. If our political attitudes are innate, they said, we might be more understanding and forgiving of each other because “if political opponents can’t help having their stupid ideas, there’s no point in disliking them. After all, they were born that way.”

The Amodio study also helps explain more recent political behavior, such as President Obama changing his mind about attacking Syria, and House Republicans’ apparent inability to accept the Affordable Care Act as the law of the land, which it has been for some time now.

But enough on this study. The authors of “Predisposed,” John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford, included a bit of humor in their introduction, which I read on the Routledge Publishing web site: an encounter between two erudite, articulate, Ivy League-educated men of letters known for their large vocabularies who shared a spot in the ABC TV booth covering the 1968 Democratic convention.

ABC thought two such persons could “demonstrate to a mass audience that it was possible for debates between political opponents to employ words that were honest, intellectual and constructive rather than pejorative, dismissive and rancorous.”


I remember seeing that live TV interaction between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, as described in the book:

“Buckley asserted Vidal was unqualified to say anything about politics, calling him ‘nothing more than a literary producer of perverted Hollywood-minded prose.’ Vidal retorted that Buckley ‘was always to the right, and always in the wrong,’ and accused him of imposing his ‘rather bloodthirsty neuroses on a political campaign.’

After that the gloves came off.

“Shut up a minute,” said Vidal. Buckley did not shut up. Vidal called him a ‘proto- or crypto-Nazi’. ‘Now listen you q—r,’ Buckley said, ‘Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the g—–n face.”

So much for that attempted demonstration of civility and elevated discourse. It may show better than any lab test how ingrained political outlooks can be.

Maybe our only hope is for everyone to sing the Gilbert and Sullivan song and to stop the pointless arguing over our predispositions, our stupid political ideas we can’t help having.

(James Lein is a community columnist for The Minot Daily News)