Many liberals are crowing happily about a new study in Nature Neuroscience that purports to prove (basically) that liberals are better at parsing input correctly than conservatives. The study authors are careful to be politically circumspect in their statements, saying that this is only one test, conservatives might do better at others, but it’s pretty clear what they want to say: liberals are smarter.
It’s hard to argue with their results. As you can see from the figure I stole from their paper, the correlation is quite strong. A regression like that is an experimentalist’s wet dream. The only question is, what are they measuring?
I’m deeply skeptical of studies like this. Political orientation is not plastic; people change their views all the time, especially during college (which I imagine is where the bulk of the study sample was drawn from). Case in point: me. When I started school in 1996 I was a Dole supporter, staunchly conservative. When I graduated at the end of 1999 I was an anarcho-communist. Furthermore, political orientation is a very ill-defined quantity. “Liberal” or “conservative” may be taken on many, many different bases, and I would strongly dispute the authors’ contention that there is a political “spectrum”. I do not believe in a holistic “liberal” worldview, any more than I believe in a holistic “conservative” worldview. These are constructions imposed on public discourse by a self-feeding party machinery, and I don’t think actual political viewpoints can be so neatly broken down. I therefore find it hard to believe that there should be fundamental neurological attributes correlating with political orientation. How, then, do I explain these results?
Just prior to performing the trials, the subjects are given a questionnaire on their political orientation. That is, the study primes them to think about politics before they enter the trial. The study methodology relies on the ability of the subject to distinguish between the letter ‘M’ and the letter ‘W’.
Liberals have spent the past eight years imbuing the symbol ‘W’ with a particularly strong sense of hatred. Since they are going into the study primed to think about politics, it stands to reason that those subjects self-identifying as liberals would not see the two alternatives as value-neutral. That is, conservatives are distinguishing between the letters “M” and “W”. Liberals are choosing between “Bush” and “Something Else”, and are therefore bringing different cognitive resources to bear on the task.
This is a conjecture, of course, and easily tested by using two other symbols (say, ‘b’ and ‘d’) that don’t have any political implications. But given the dubious nature of the proposition and the visceral nature of the reactions being measured, I suspect that the choice of letters goes a long way towards explaining this difference.