Dial M for Misinterpretation: Psychology’s Latest Attack on Conservatives

September 23, 2007 by Shawn Smith

Q: In light of your previous intellectual truck-bombings of such junk-psych as the “conservative crybaby” study, I was interested in getting your opinion on a new study put out by NYU and UCLA’s psych departments claiming that the brains of left-wingers are more “tolerant of ambiguity and conflict” than those of right-wingers, based on a simple letter-recognition test.

If you haven’t read about it, I’ll paste some information for you here, straight from the LA Times article: [here’s the link].

Thoughts? I’m terribly interested in the intersection between psychology and politics and I intend to design my bachelor’s thesis on it, though of course I don’t plan to use it as a political bludgeon to shut dissenting academics out of the university. – Sean

Dear Sean,

anti-conservative researchI’ve never gone for conspiracy theories. Globalization paranoia and 9/11 cover-ups bore me. But I’m beginning to wonder if there is a conspiracy brewing amongst my colleagues. It seems that some of them have declared war on conservatives.[1]

Earlier this year, I debunked two studies that attempted to paint conservatives as personally flawed and mentally inferior to liberals. Atrocious methodology, both of them. Of course, those were simply the latest assaults on conservatives. Liberally dominated academia has been “studying” conservatives for decades, and they usually reach the same conclusion: conservatives are mentally flawed. (Pardon me for speaking in generalities, but I’ve already made my case.) I am aware of no corresponding studies impugning the intelligence or character of liberals.

If I were a less rational person, I might start to believe that liberal academics are laying the groundwork for some kind of conservative final solution. Luckily, I’m not that paranoid.

Still, I can’t help but notice that they are amassing quite an arsenal against conservatives. It makes a person wonder where liberal academia is headed with these studies.

A Brief Description of the Latest “Conservatives Are Stupid” Study
To be fair, the authors of Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism did not editorialize in their paper. They simply presented what they found and waited until after the study was published to express their opinions, which they approached in a fairly even-handed fashion. Pretty standard practice.

In this study, David Amodio, John Jost, Sarah Master, and Cindy Yee tested the conflict monitoring skills of liberals and conservatives. “Conflict monitoring,” they explained, “is a general mechanism for detecting when one’s habitual response tendency is mismatched with responses required by the current situation…” In other words, how easily can a person switch to a new response after an old response has become habitual?

The study’s design was simple: participants were instructed to press a button within half a second of seeing the letter M on a monitor. If they saw the letter W, however, they were to abstain. M appeared 400 out of 500 times, which created a habitual response in the participants.

political measurement
Figure 1. Correlation of political self-rating with ACC activity during conflict monitoring.

When the letter W appeared, participants had to suppress that habit. 2 (Next time you put on a shirt, try skipping the third button and you’ll get a sense of the extra mental effort involved in suppressing a habit.) As the participants pressed buttons (or not), experimenters watched the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain involved in conflict monitoring.

Meanwhile, participants were asked to rate themselves on a scale ranging from -5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (extremely conservative). The authors then correlated self-reported political orientation with scores on the conflict monitoring task.

The result? Liberals were more accurate, and they showed more brain activity (at least, in the ACC) when suppressing a response to the letter W.

I could certainly point to flaws in the study, as others have, but that would be nitpicking. On balance, I don’t have a beef with the methodology. No study is ideal, and it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that outward behavior (such as voting for certain candidates) is a reflection of inward behavior (such as decision making style).

My main concerns are 1) the way this study is being interpreted and 2) the way it will be used in the future. Make no mistake, the unbiased specifics of this study will be forgotten, but the anti-conservative interpretation will become one more piece of ammunition in the long-term war against people on the right.

Writing History
The results of this study are not inherently biased against conservatives, a fact that lead author David Amodio has pointed out. The study simply illustrated differences in individual functioning. But the results have been finessed in the media to leave the reader with a simple impression: liberals are more sophisticated than conservatives.

Take, for example, the role of Berkeley researcher Frank Sulloway, who was quoted in the L.A. Times, the Seattle Times, theBaltimore Sun, and other accounts of the study. He asserted that the study could explain George W. Bush’s single-minded commitment to the Iraq war, and it is evidence that liberals can more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

He gathers all that from a handful of college students pressing buttons? Seems like a stretch. Who is this guy, anyway?

Each story that quoted Sulloway was careful to point out that he was “not involved with the study” (Seattle Times) or “not connected with the study” (L.A. Times). This creates the impression that he is simply a disinterested expert offering an objective opinion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sulloway’s name may not appear on this study, but he is intimately connected to it. Sulloway helped pen the 2003 meta-analysis asserting that conservatives are simple-minded and dogmatic. He was coauthor to John Jost who, in turn, coauthored the present study. This newest study is a direct attempt to confirm their 2003 findings. In fact, the introductory paragraph takes ideas straight from the 2003 meta-analysis and credits the source:

“Across dozens of behavioral studies, conservatives have been found to be more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making, as indicated by higher average scores on psychological measures of personal needs for order, structure, and closure. Liberals, by contrast, report higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity, and greater openness to new experiences on psychological measures.”

Shame on Sulloway for allowing the media to believe that he is impartial. He should have disclosed his bias.

As it stands, the media are left with the impression that this study favors the liberal brain (a conclusion that lead author Amodio has cautioned against). Had the results been reversed, you can be sure that “disinterested” experts would have found another way to tie this study to their predetermined conclusion. Bush’s “single-minded commitment to the Iraq war” might have been explained by his distractibility and inability to focus on the big picture. Liberals, on the other hand, would have been praised for their ideological consistency and sober decision making.

Articles about this study have been deceptive in another way, as well. They have discussed liberal and conservative participants as though the researchers assigned them to groups. However, this study did not examine groups, it examined individuals who placed themselves on an 11-point continuum. That is an important distinction in the world of research, and it restricts the conclusions that can be drawn.

Were it a group study, it would have been unacceptably unbalanced and sloppy – something like 29 loosely defined, self-described liberals to 8 similarly defined conservatives.3 It would be irrational to draw conclusions about group differences from such a design, and even more ridiculous to imply that those differences could be generalized to the larger population.

Yet, that is precisely what is happening. In its account of this story, the Sacramento Bee happily presented mean group performance differences that did not appear in the original manuscript:

“…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.” 3

The implication is that these differences (small though they may be) extend to the larger populations of liberals and conservatives. That is perfectly unscientific. Of course, we can’t expect reporters to be trained in the nuances of research design. I can’t help wondering if some of the authors are counting on that fact.

When Jost et al. published their 2003 meta-analysis, there was a storm of protest from the right. Eventually, the debate died down and we are left today with a simplified conclusion used by reporters and researchers alike: liberals are groovy and open-minded; conservatives are nervous and dogmatic.

That conclusion, however easily dispelled it may be, is evolving into a “fact” that is the basis for interpreting studies like this one. Each of the newspaper articles I read cited the 2003 meta-analysis with unquestioning acceptance.

Give this study enough time and a similar thing will happen. At present, the authors offer mild cautionary notes while the media and their colleagues happily misinterpret the results. Eventually, the specifics of this study will be forgotten and the anti-conservative interpretation will live on as the foundation for future studies.

Good luck to you, Sean. Producing even-handed research in this atmosphere going to be an uphill battle.


1. As I’ve done before, I’ll disclose my political bias. It’s relevant to my opinion of this study. I am a fiscal conservative and social libertarian. I support the right of individuals to keep what they earn and do what they want; I am in favor of fat bank accounts and gay marriages. In short, I don’t want the government (read: my neighbors) in my wallet or in my bedroom.

2. This is according to press accounts. One press account reported that they reversed the M and W conditions and achieved the same results.

3. I arrived at 26 liberals and 8 conservatives by counting the dots on the scatter plot (figure 1). The authors did not describe group differences in their paper, though they did draw group-based distinctions: “At the behavioral level, conservatives were also more likely to make errors of commission. Although a liberal orientation was associated with better performance on the response-inhibition task examined here, conservatives would presumably perform better on tasks in which a more fixed response style is optimal.” Though they didn’t discuss mean group differences in their manuscript, somebody obviously provided numerical group differences to theSacramento Bee. Bad form, guys. That behavior contributes to the misinterpretation of this study.

Amodio, D.M., Jost, J.T., Master, S.L., & Yee, C.M. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neuroscience, 9 September 2007, in press.

Dahlberg, C.P. (2007). In capital, red brain, blue brain study strikes a nerve among partisans. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://www.sacbee.com/101/story/370339.html.

Chicago Tribune & Los Angeles Times (2007). Brains of liberals, conservatives may work differently, study finds. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003877213_brain10.html.

Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.

Gelene, D. (2007). Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-politics10sep10,1,5376455.story?ctrack=1&cset=true and from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/health/bal-te.brain10sep10,0,6394953.story and fromhttp://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-politicalbrain_bothsep10,1,6328755.story.

Peres, J. (2007). Political attitudes may be all in head. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-politicalbrain_bothsep10,1,6328755.story.