Yale Psychologists Discover Neural Core of Conservative Thinking

No, they didn’t cut open Newt Gincrich’s brain and find a little section of neural tissue wearing a MAGA hat and complaining about Mexicans. But if I’m remembering my neurology correctly, this Yale psychologist John Bargh’s Washington Post article seems to be implying that conservatism comes from the amygdala. The amygdala is the centre of emotions, including fear.

Why fear? Although the publication of the study is upcoming, John Bargh describes the procedures he and his fellow researchers developed and their key results in his article. What they did was ask groups of self-identified liberal and conservative Americans their opinions on a variety of politically partisan topics, including immigration. These psychologists found they could make a person, at least temporarily, be less conservative if they manipulated just one thing: their fear.

That’s right, conservatives become liberal if you make them feel physically safe. By imagining safety from all harm just beforehand, conservative participants in Bargh’s study were able to get past the amygdala and respond more even-handedly to complex political issues. Yes, it seems emotional psychology is more important to conservative thinking than carefully-reasoned philosophical beliefs.

Unfortunately, in current Republican discourse, voters are typically primed for fear. There are those who question Donald Trump’s Republican bona fides, but one thing that makes him effective at manipulating his conservative base is his use of fear. Fear of crime, fear of economic disaster, fear of terrorism. If Bargh and his colleagues are correct (and it seems they are only building on a much larger and well-established body of research with their recent study), Trump supporters voted with their amygdalas rather than the rational, reasoning portion of their brains.

Bargh notes that liberal politicians take a different approach. They tend to instinctively frame problems as solvable, making a well-reasoned case for how they want to tackle it. Conservative politicians (many of whom are opportunists tapping into the fear of others rather than drawing on their own fear-based beliefs) frame problems as a dire threat and a reason to panic; having primed their constituents for a freak-out, they then promise the most extreme and immediate response, however ill-considered or ineffectual.

Bargh notes that previous work in psychology has been able to predict conservatism later in life in toddlers, based on how fearful they are. It’s tempting and perhaps a little gratifying to the liberal-minded to imagine hard-line conservatives as frightened little boys and girls, but let’s try to resist that temptation. The truth is, we’re all driven by fear and other emotions to varying degrees and in various circumstances. Most of us know some people that are politically opposite to ourselves, through extended (or immediate) family, work, neighborhood associations, and so on. How can we use these insights to get along with them better and possibly even change their mind a little?

Remember that a person who listens to a lot of right-wing radio and reads a lot of Facebook conspiracy pages and shouts a lot of weird confused nonsense in mixed company is actually experiencing a natural emotional reaction to perceived threats. From their perspective, liberal-minded people are the clueless ones, missing the obvious threats that loom so large within their media bubble.

If you want to change a person’s mind, probably the first step would be establishing a safe space, developing a friendly relationship, and just calmly sharing accurate information, introducing them to more diverse types of people to dispel their boogeymen, and you may eventually see a softening of their views on at least some issues. It might even be worthwhile to cite this research specifically, saying that people make more rational decisions if they take stock of their personal safety first.

If you can’t change their minds? Well, at least now you have some window into what their thought process is and can maybe at least feel a little sorry for them.

Photo credit: Amber Rieder

111 comments

Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Marigold A
Past Member 7 months ago

TYFP.

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Amanda M
Amanda M7 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda M7 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Janis K
Janis K7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Julia R
Julia R7 months ago

So Trump's supporters are more dominated by the primal brain than the frontal lobe which is the seat of higher brain functions like reasoning! Wasn't that also true of Hitler's supporters?

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Bobby M
Bobby M7 months ago

You need to make decisions based on both feeling AND reason.BOTH ways of thinking are needed.Being extreme in either right wing or left wing thinking makes one a nut job.Liberals and conservatives are both nut jobs,because they both are extreme,just in opposite directions.The political system,as is,remains ineffective.Any rational person can see that.

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Shailja Mukhtyar
Shailja Mukhtyar7 months ago

meditation & yoga frequently achieve similar results, effortlessly !! no side effects - perfect health- & remember- health is wealth- bypass the bipartisan garbage !!

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Brian F
Brian F7 months ago

Regus S I support Jill Stein who is honest, and supports progressive policies that we desperately need in this country like Medicare for All, free colleges, a $15.00 an hour minimum wage, and marijuana legalization. Most of the corrupt corporate owned Democrats you support like Nancy Pelosi who is worth 100 million dollars refuse to support these policies because they are as corrupt as the Republicans. Corporate fake Democrats like you, are as corrupt as the Republicans, and the reason I left your corrupt Democratic party, and will vote for Jill Stein. Enjoy this fraud Trump as your president again in 2020, because most of the progressive Bernie Sanders supporters have left your criminal party.

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Brian F
Brian F7 months ago

Regus S It seems like your really describing yourself. Most of the corrupt Democrats you support like that crook Diane Feinstein who refuses to support Medicare for All, because our criminal healthcare industry paid her millions as a bribe, are as corrupt as the Republicans. Even the disgraced liar Donna Brazille admitted that Hillary used her enormous wealth to buy and run the corrupt DNC, and force it to favor her over Bernie Sanders. Recently that Obama installed crook Tom Perez fired all the honest progressives who support Bernie Sanders. After the corrupt Democrats cheated Bernie Sanders out of his primary, lied about the Nevada convention, anointed a horrible crook Hillary, recently fired all the honest progressives, and prevent Bernie Sanders from having any power, so they can continue their corruption, you still continue to defend them, proves that your brain is severely deformed.

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