Not “hard wiring”, please

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, December 30, 2010 0:11 EDT
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It’s a story that, like a lot of media coverage of science and research, is getting linked everywhere because it confirms pre-existing prejudices. Here’s the story:

Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.

On the otherhand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.

The “exciting” correlation was found by scientists at University College London who scanned the brains of two members of parliament and a number of students.

They found that the size of the two areas of the brain directly related to the political views of the volunteers.

However as they were all adults it was hard to say whether their brains had been born that way or had developed through experience.

I’m not a scientist, but I do read up on this kind of thing, and I’m inclined to think the latter—or at best, a combination of the two factors—is the more likely explanation. Because there’s no real evidence that political beliefs are genetic. Yes, they’re highly heritable, but that’s because the people who raise you instill their values in you. From what I understand, there’s a lot of evidence to show that your environment dramatically shapes what your brain looks like on those FMRI machines, so it makes sense that people who are conservative and therefore obsess constantly about who they hate and who is out to steal their privileges would have brains that reflect that obsession more than people who think in more generous, relaxed terms. Of course, a snapshot of the brain doesn’t tell you how it got that way, which is why some folks are critical of these FMRI studies that get a lot of press—the problem is that there’s a tendency to think that what you see on the screen is not influenced by environment, but is “hard wired”. And while the article itself is neutral on this subject, the headline (which, to be fair, is almost never written by the reporter) is not:

Political views ‘hard-wired’ into your brain

This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves. While it gives us a temporary thrill to think of conservatives as just being kind of broken, the implication of this is that they can’t help themselves. And I strongly disagree. I think the people who, for instance, are scrambling around screaming their heads off about “Obamacare” and a mosque in the financial district of Manhattan need to be held responsible for their lies and their unwillingness to engage the issues like fully grown citizens. Writing it off as a product of “hard wiring”, especially when there’s no evidence that a brain scan shows any such thing, is giving in to the same tendency that allows conservatives to believe any fool thing someone tells them because it confirms their prejudices.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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