On the Lifeboat Foundation list, someone recently suggested that there are
fundamental differences between the brains of liberals and the brains of conservatives. My response...
Leaving aside the issue of Ms. Geller (the discussion of whom I feel a bit uncomfortable about on this list,
even though I am capable of grossly unfeeling jokes about Rick Perry in the "quiet" of my mind)...
What about differences in the brain between liberals and conservatives?
At first, that question also gets my hackles up. Many "differences in the brain" are just differences
in what different people have learned and believe in the course of a lifetime,
based in part on different life experiences. Making it sound as if every troublesome kid must have a lesion in need of drugs
is itself a dangerous neurosis in this society. Ideas about human society are an area where we do have some
ability to learn new things. That's important.
But it's also true that here are some interesting disposition effects, de facto... effects which seem more
persistent than the kind of disposition effects E.O. Wilson talked about, which were mainly just initial values in an otherwise flexible
Years ago, I remember a very tense meeting of the Governing Board of the International Neural Network Society (INNS).
The question was how much to cooperate with IEEE, the Big Engineering Society, the elephant next door.
About one third wanted no part of it; total independence. About one third wanted to be totally subservient, give
up all independence, and maybe sue to just be part of it. And about one-third were in the middle, looking for
reasonable terms and a harmonious cooperation. And it couldn't all be predicted by whether one
was a neuroscientist or not. It was no surprise that Lotif Zadeh was in the middle, or that I was.
Later, I talked about it at lunch with Harry Klopf, an important mathematical psychologist known for work
analyzing animal learning. He said... yes, this all felt very much like a typical left-right-middle kind
of struggle. Some people just have a tendency to be on the right wing of ANYTHING, even on issues -- like
relations with IEEE, which would seem to have no connection at all with conservative ideology.
Probably he was thinking about attitudes towards authority and submissiveness and stuff like that.
More often, I think about "novelty seeking" and "tolerance of cognitive dissonance" -- very different and important
tendencies, with a genetic component more persistent than Wilson's concept of predisposition.
(My claim is that here are three kinds of redisposition effects -- the initial values type,
this intermediate type, and types which effect... let's call it the primary reinforcement mechanism.)
Lots of people talk about Cloninger these days, who simplifies things by combining these two into
one "mainly genetic" factor.
BUT: this does not sort people into liberals and conservatives.
Interest in tolerance of cognitive dissonance became very acute at World War II, when
the Nazis became a kind of poster child for intolerance of cognitive dissonance.
But Stalin would qualify to some degree. In general, I have the impression that people
of German origin (like half of me, and I inherit this trait) and of Russian origin (like
my wife) have this trait much more than, say, the Irish (my other half, but not decisive here)
or the Chinese.
But are Germans born conservative? Boehner sometimes makes hints...
but not really. It's about wanting the world to make sense, and not being like one of those amorphous sponges
who can believe 100 mutually contradictory things at the same time with no trouble.
(Or, like cousin Bohr, accepting islands of complementarity when they are very explicit and well defined...
though I have to admit that was too much for me to accept in physics. Am with Rand and Lenin on that one.)
One does not have to avoid novelty, or be inflexible, if one has this trait. And one certainly
doesn't have to believe in tea party stuff, or ignore solid economic analysis!
It just comes and goes in different ways.
In my view, the intermediate poredispositions are based on things like learning rate parameters,
which have no "correct" value and have genetic variation for precisely that reason.
I also am high on "novelty seeking." Those two variables are discussed, for example,
in an article on the "New Coke" debacle, by Dan Levine and Sam Leven, several years ago -- two people I have known well for many years. I tend to think
of the novelty seeking as more form the Irish side.
Novelty seeking and intolerance of cognitive dissonance do tend to create a kind of tension. One part always tries to pout things into an organized picture, and the other works hard to falsify it. Maybe more scientists should be like that...