Thursday, September 13, 2007

Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial

An awful lot of cyberink has been spilled over the liberal-conservative EEG study published online in Nature Neuroscience a few days ago. The Neurocritic is not an expert in social psychology or personality, so to be fair in the sequel to The Error of Prognosticating Political View by Brain Wave, I decided to read [skim] the 2003 paper by Jost and colleagues, Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (PDF here). An obvious question for the uninitiated is whether there is any truth to the title of this post, other than the inference I made based on the error-related negativity literature: 1
Liberals showed larger ERN waves than conservatives when mistakenly responding on No-Go trials. However, so do individuals with clinical diagnoses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (Gehring et al., 2000) or major depressive disorder (Chiu & Deldin, 2007).

On the other hand, individuals with schizophrenia (Mathalon et al., 2002) or psychopathy (Munro et al., 2007) show smaller ERN waves than control participants. These findings extend to the normal population, i.e., people who do not fit the criteria for a clinical diagnosis, but who score higher or lower on certain traits. For example, people who score high on negative affect have bigger ERNs (Hajcak et al., 2004), while individuals with "externalizing psychopathology" have smaller ERNs (Hall et al., 2007). Does this mean that liberals are neurotic and conservatives are antisocial? Since these were not assessed along with political orientation, we can only hazard a guess...
Actually, we may not need to hazard a guess, because such measures may have been already obtained from these subjects, as stated in the Supplementary Methods:
A measure of political attitudes was embedded in a larger set of personality and attitudes surveys completed at the every [sic] beginning of the experimental session.
So a paper about neurotic liberals with large ERNs and antisocial conservatives with small ERNs may yet appear in a journal near you. This begs the question,
Perhaps there were any other correlations? I wonder what the odds were of a stastically [sic] significant finding given the number of personality and attitude surveys.
But back to the 2003 paper. I do remember that it raised a big stink in the media at the time, not surprising given a press release like this:
Disparate conservatives share a resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, the authors said. Hitler, Mussolini, and former President Ronald Reagan were individuals, but all were right-wing conservatives because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form. Talk host Rush Limbaugh can be described the same way, the authors commented in a published reply to the article.
Here's the abstract of the paper (Jost et al., 2003), which really is all about conservatism: 2
Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification). A meta-analysis (88 samples, 12 countries, 22,818 cases) confirms that several psychological variables predict political conservatism: death anxiety (weighted mean r= .50); system instability (.47); dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity (.34); openness to experience (–.32); uncertainty tolerance (–.27); needs for order, structure, and closure (.26); integrative complexity (–.20); fear of threat and loss (.18); and self-esteem (–.09). The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.
OK then, "resistance to change" appears to extend to a lowered ability to inhibit habitual responding and a diminished brain response to such mistakes (Amodio et al., 2007). It's still not clear to me, however, how brain systems responsible for personality constructs like intolerance of ambiguity and needs for order, structure, and closure overlap with brain systems responsible for not pressing a key to a letter presented 20% of the time.

Now back to the 2007 NN article again. I hate to belabor the point, but it's only fair to examine the paper on its merits, not on the ideologies of the authors, no matter how much I might agree with them. But really, this blog comment sums it up:

It is useless to try to infer anything from this study. The experimenter has 26 liberals and 7 conservatives. Not exactly equal sample sizes, and not a big enough sample of conservatives to gain any inference about the range of responses here, even if you buy into the non-sequiter introduction set out by the authors. [NOTE: the following objections were addressed by the first author.] A thought experiment: would the correlation hold up if the two biggest outliers were excluded. Doesn't look like it. No mention of possible sex differences etc. usually discussed in these papers. The authors fail to address these confounds even in the supplementary info. A sad commentary on the state of science when a journal with this level of impact publishes a study of this low quality.

Posted by: John Broussard | September 11, 2007 6:48 PM

Huh. So this would imply that the brain wave data shown in Fig 1b of Amodio et al. (2007) were averages from 7 conservatives and ~26 liberals!

And a very important bit of data -- mean accuracy rates for conservatives and liberals -- didn't appear anywhere in the paper [someone correct me if I'm wrong], but was published in this newspaper article:

In the 400 easy trials, just about everyone got it right.

But in the 100 tough trials, when students saw the letter that meant they shouldn't press a button, self-described conservatives pressed the button anyway nearly half the time - an error rate of 44 out of 100.

Liberals fumbled about a third of the time, with an error rate of 34 out of 100.

Neurophilosophy reported slightly different figures [not sure where he got them]:
It was found that those who considered themselves to be conservatives made more response errors when upon presentatin of the infrequent letters than those who considered themselves as liberals (respectively, 47% and 37% of the time).
Have any of you ever published papers in less prestigious journals without including mean accuracy and reaction time values for your comparison populations?? There was absolutely no information about RTs at all, so we don't know whether there was a speed-accuracy trade-off in the conservatives (a "reckless" and disinhibited response style) or whether they were "conscientious" (RT comparable to [or slower than] liberals), but just couldn't stop themselves from pressing the key on No-Go trials.

Enough already with the ranting.

Peace. Shana Tova.


1 See previous post for a list of those references.

2 This paper doesn't discuss the psychological variables that predict liberalism, so in the end we don't know if liberals are neurotic; the incidence of antisocial traits in conservatives was not reported.


Amodio DM, Jost JT, Master SL, Yee CM. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neurosci. Published online 9 September 2007.

Jost JT, Glaser J, Kruglanski AW, Sulloway FJ. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychol Bull. 129:339-75.

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At September 13, 2007 3:43 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

I wonder how ERN rates might relate to World Domination Disorder?

At September 13, 2007 3:52 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I suppose the person diagnosed with that disorder would NEVER know he made a mistake. That phenomenon is depicted here, in Figure 1.

At September 15, 2007 8:22 AM, Blogger JM Hanes said...

Nice critiques. I believe the study included 36 liberal participants, not 26 as stated in the Broussard comment though.

If I had the venue and the audience to do it, I'd sponsor a competition with prizes for the most convincing and the most outlandish set of conclusions drawn from the same set of data. Amodio certainly has the outlandish edge.

Using available college students as subjects is just plain lazy -- especially given growing evidence that physiological maturation of the brain continues far longer then previously assumed. The size of the sample and the disparity between liberal & conservative numbers, however, verges on scientific malpractice. Shame on nature neuroscience for publishing such dreck -- and charging $30 for it.

At September 15, 2007 2:27 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your comment, JM Hanes. First, I agree with you that Nature Neuroscience should not have published the paper in its current form. And it's a shame that those without institutional subscriptions (e.g. through a university) have to pay $30 to read it. Call to action: Contact your Senator with support for public access to NIH-funded research urges individuals to:

remind your Senators of your strong support for public access to publicly funded research and – specifically – ensuring the success of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy by making deposit mandatory for researchers.

This prompted me to look at the funding source in the Acknowledgments section of the Amodio paper, and there wasn't one listed. This is most unusual, because authors are required to list the sources of funding for their publications.

Second, it's hard to know how the authors classified subjects as liberal or conservative, because they don't tell you. Although they used correlation analyses for most of their comparisons, one might conjecture that those self-described moderate subjects with scores of +1 and -1 (as well as zero, of course) would be excluded from group averages.

Finally, it seems that it wouldn't be too difficult to recruit students from the NYU College Republicans and the UCLA Bruin Republicans.

At September 15, 2007 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Neurocritic,

I like your blog – it’s important to a have a critical voice out there. However, given how this study has been misconstrued and sensationalized in the media, as well as among science bloggers, it’s important to address the criticisms directly. Though I’ve generally not worried about the “lay” coverage (how can you argue science with pundits?), it might be worthwhile to respond to a blog that is read by neuroscientists (including myself from time to time):

1) There were no gender differences on any variable. Moreover, 63% women is actually fairly balanced for a psychology study, so I’m surprised this has even come up. We didn’t report gender effects for the sake of brevity, though in hindsight, I wish we had slipped it in.

2) People have complained that there were more liberals the conservatives in the sample. True, in an absolute sense. But this is typical in political psychology: Americans are more conservative on average, and so more extreme conservatives usually rate themselves as moderate conservatives, whereas moderate liberals tend to rate themselves more extremely (see Linda Skitka’s work and comments on the paper). It’s a scaling issue that psychologists deal with all the time.

Nevertheless, we’re talking about a correlation. The clear linear effect suggests the stronger liberalism is associated with greater conflict-related ACC activity. Not sure how anyone can argue with that.

3) The sample was actually rather large for a neuro study. Also, please note our use of *inferential statistics* – I’ve been surprised by the criticism of the size given the strength of the effect!

4) Outliers? There weren’t any. (Not sure what Broussard was referring to in the highly-critical comment you posted. Maybe someone should lend him a stats book…)

5) On reporting group differences in RTs and error rates – to be clear, we did not conduct group analyses (though one graph displays the median split of ERN waves). We looked at correlations along a continuum. Group analyses would have been psychometrically problematic, and furthermore, we didn’t want to suggest that political orientation is categorical. Though of course this didn’t stop the media and bloggers to speak in terms of categories…

In the end, the study reports a correlation. You can’t “disprove” it – you can only interpret it. Our interpretation was face valid – this measure of political orientation was strongly correlated with the ERN and No-Go N2 from the Go/No-Go task. Simple as that. Might there be 3rd variables at play? Probably. But that doesn’t contradict our interpretation or cast doubt on the quality of the study.

Good science is an art. But so is good science critique. Without a plausible alternative interpretation, you don’t have a critique. I suppose people are just cranky because this bullet-point of a study has been so over-sensationalized. Or maybe some folks just aren’t familiar with how you do this kind of research. So I hope this post clarifies some things.


At September 16, 2007 2:42 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Hi DA,

Thank you for taking the time to respond and for being so gracious despite some...well...highly critical remarks. Some of which are not my own, so perhaps I should not have been such a "sounding board." I just have a couple of replies to your comments.

1) I (personally) didn't have an issue with possible gender differences, but it's good to have that clarified.

2) I'm rather ignorant of standard rating systems in political psychology, but is self-rating always used? Aren't there more "objective" questionnaires used to classify American participants along the liberal-conservative continuum?

I'm not familiar with Linda Skitka's work. I wouldn't know where to start [even if I had time to read her papers], perhaps with Skitka & Tetlock (1993)? Hmm, Mullen et al. (2003) looks quite interesting, if not entirely relevant here.

3) Your correlations are strong, yes. It seems people had more of a problem with the restricted range of the conservative sample.

4) You're right, he's wrong, not sure which points would be considered outliers. I went back to the original post and put the offending passages in strikeout font. However, it does seem the 7 conservatives' ERNs were quite variable (values from -2 to -23).

5) I was basing my comments about group analyses on the fact that you had to do them to show the EEG data in Figure 1b. And the fact that mean accurate rates were reported in (ahem) newspaper articles. My criticism about the lack of RT data in the paper still stands:

There was absolutely no information about RTs at all, so we don't know whether there was a speed-accuracy trade-off in the conservatives (a reckless and disinhibited response style) or whether they were "conscientious" (RT comparable to [or slower than] liberals), but just couldn't stop themselves from pressing the key on No-Go trials.

That could comprise part of an alternate explanation, along with "3rd variables at play" as I've sarcastically suggested with my Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial quip.

At any rate, I would beg to differ that good science critique must provide an alternate interpretation. Some science critique can be based on methods, analysis, reporting of results, etc.

My closing remarks are based on the assumption that the ERN wave is a direct measure of conflict monitoring in the ACC. [I've focused on the ERN rather than the N2 because the former is illustrated in the paper and the latter is not]. A quick review of the literature indicates that's not necessarily the case. First, not everyone agrees that the ERN measures response conflict rather than error processing more specifically (Carbonnell & Falkenstein, 2006), or that ACC hemodynamic activity during error commission is a reflection of response conflict (Garavan et al., 2003; Critchley et al., 2005). Second, when people make mistakes, it seems that more of the brain is active than just the ACC (Klein et al., 2007; Ullsperger & von Cramon, 2006).

At least, these are my impressions...


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