Are there differences at the neural level in the ways that liberals and conservatives process information?
Some theories suggest that conservatives tend to have a more structured and persistent cognitive style, where liberals tend to be more open to ambiguity. Building on this idea, a recent paper by David Amodio and his colleagues investigated whether liberals and conservatives would show different brain responses when completing a task requiring cognitive control. They tested this question by recording event related potentials (brain activity) as participants performed what psychologists call a "go-no go task". This task involves pressing a button every time an arrow in one direction is shown on a screen, and withholding that response when an arrow in the opposite direction is presented. Performance on this task can be thought of as a proxy for one’s ability to switch gears, or to inhibit a prepotent response in favor of a conflicting demand. Results of the investigation suggested that those high in dispositional liberalism showed stronger activity in an area of the brain called the ACC (which has been associated with conflict monitoring) during "no-go" trials (when response inhibition was needed), while conservatives showed less ACC acitivity on "no-go" trials (D. Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007). The authors, therefore, conclude that liberals may have more sensitivity to cues for altering habitual response pattern:“Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political orientation, in part, reﬂects individual differences in the functioning of a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation” (p. 2).
This is the first study connecting ideology to a basic neurocognitive system of self-regulation, and as such leaves many questions unanswered. For example, would the results of less conflict monitoring on a go-no go task generalize to the processing of other more important, real-life tasks? Is the distinction of liberal versus conservative a helpful distinction in this regard, or would it make more sense to consider other personality factors (those who are more or less likely to regulate prepotent responses, independent of political affiliation)?