Is dodgy neuroscience in journalists’ nature or their nurture?

(Hat-tip to This Wicked Day for the link, and for pointing out that I can’t spell)

Another story exclusive to all papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Express have all churned out a story based on this morning’s Today (two parts, sound only).* The show was guest edited by Colin Firth, who decided to use this as an opportunity to commission some research into whether political views are visible in brain structure.

The results are fairly interesting – though the only place they’ve so far been published is on the Today show’s blog, which means I can’t really comment on them in any detail. As far as I can tell, this is what they found: people who self-identified as left-wing or liberal were found to generally have a thicker anterior cingulate – the part of the brain believed to deal with empathy and decision making – while people who described themselves as right-wing conservative had a larger right-hand amygdala – the structure which seems to be do with anxiety and higher emotion processing. There seems to be some confusion on the Today show blog about whether it’s a “strong correlation” or “a weak but statistically significant correlation”.

The problem is that, just as with the so-called “liberal gene“, there’s nothing here which proves that these structures actually cause people to be left or right wing. For one thing, we don’t know which way the correlation runs; in other words, whether having a larger amygdala causes people to be right wing, or whether being right wing just makes the amygdala grow – or whether there’s something else hidden in the body which affects political views and brain structure.

Secondly, again, just like with the liberal gene, it’s possible that political views are only indirectly linked to brain structure – the fact that the correlation between the two was weak would seem to back this up. For example, if people with a thick anterior cingulate are generally better at empathy, and more empathic people are generally more liberal, then there might be a small correlation between cingulate size and left wing leanings. This would not mean that one causes the other however! It would be perfectly possible for someone with a thin cingulate to be empathic, and for someone with a thick cingulate to be self-centred. Our brain structure isn’t the only thing that affects our personality – nor are our political views driven entirely by our empathy and our anxiety.

* Interestingly, the reliably right wing Mail goes for the self-deprecating headline “Tory voters found to have larger ‘primitive’ lobe in brain” while the similarly leaning Express runs with the exact opposite: “Lefty? Blame the shape of your brain“.

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  1. #1 by wickedday on Wednesday, 29th December 2010 - 0:26 UTC

    Another dodgy thing – or certainly potential/likely source of dodginess – is the “self-identified as left-wing or liberal” bit.

    Firstly, ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are all very large boxes, and don’t necessarily correspond to positions that would tend to indicate a surplus/lack of empathy. I’ve met hardline antigovernment libertarians and anarchists whose disregard for individual suffering was … terrifying, frankly, and on the other hand religious traditionalists who worked tirelessly for social justice – yet who would respectively ID (and accurately enough; like I said, big boxes) as left- and right-wing.

    There’s also the not insignificant point that people’s political self-identification quite often seems to bear sod-all relation to their actual views – especially the self-identified lefties who fall over themselves to advocate what I, at least, would call highly illiberal things whenever something controversial hits the news.

    I’d think a better study would be to get people to say whether they identified as left- or right-wing, then (at a separate stage) to answer a short questionnaire about their actual political views, and then the scans; and then compare them all together. It might be possible to pin down a more concrete correlation between people holding highly empathic positions, for example, and the size of the cingulate – and it might also show some interesting things about what people who self-ID as left/right-wing actually believe.

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