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Deprogramming “neuro”politics in an election year

Wrapping up the neuroscience stuff, we note that in “Problems in the neurozone”, (Counterbalance blog, May 8, 2012), Pete Etchells comments on “neuro”-political science:

After the likes of neuroaesthetics and neuromarketing, the newest of these fads seems to be neuropolitics. This is the idea that political viewpoints and standings are somehow tied to the fundamentals of human biology, and brain imaging techniques can provide a means through which we can figure out what parts of the brain are politically relevant.

There’s a problem with this idea. Well, actually there are quite a few problems, but I’ll concentrate on one for now. … For example, in the above study, the authors found that people who considered themselves to be more liberal showed more grey matter in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, and those who considered themselves to be more conservative had larger right amygdalae.

As I’ve pointed out in other posts, pointing out that two things are correlated does not give you any insight into causality. Note that this is not a criticism of the above study; the authors quite rightly point this out too. But the trouble comes when others latch on to findings like that, and start inferring more from than the research than was originally intended.

What does that mean for conservatives? Well, not much, really. Political beliefs are hugely complex, and can change rapidly and quickly over time. In order to simplify the issue, it can be all too easy to allude to causal inferences such as “well, the amygala is all about threat sensitivity, and conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threat in that they have stricter views on crime and punishment”, which in turn leads to “people are conservative because they have a bigger amygdala”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it makes for good reading in the papers, so it inevitably happens.

Of course, if people live with a high risk of victimization by crime, that could be the cause of an enlarged amygdala.

Indeed, the chief danger of this sort of research is that its inward focus distracts attention from the external circumstances in which people take political positions. For example, plant closings or increased crime rates will register differently depending on how or whether they affect the voter. It would be no surprise if these differences left some track in the brain, but to interpret the situation, one must look at the voter’s environment.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose

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