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Left brain, right brain

Are liberals more adaptable than conservatives? And what does it mean when someone switches sides?

September 12, 2007

A study reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that liberals are more adaptable than conservatives. "Duh," you might say. After all, it's conservatives who insist that "when it's not necessary to change, it's necessary not to change." But this study goes beyond the truism that conservatives like to conserve to suggest that liberals might be better judges of the facts than conservatives.

Liberal and conservative college students were asked to tap a keyboard when one letter appeared on a computer screen, and to refrain from tapping when they saw a different letter that appeared less frequently. Researchers found that liberals were less likely to mistake one letter for another; the lefties also registered more brain activity when the less frequent letter popped up.

Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA neurologist not connected to the study, said it showed that "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style." Lead author David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, explained the difference in terms of a commuter who drives the same way home from work every day. If he's a liberal, he is more likely to be alert to a detour. If he's a conservative, he's more likely to, well, stay the course.

Fun stuff, except perhaps for Fox News. But there's a problem with the templates of the rigid conservative and the flexible liberal. The history of politics and ideas abounds with personalities who migrated from right to left and vice versa.

One of the notable intellectual developments of the 20th century was the defection from communism -- the "God that failed" -- by disillusioned believers such as Arthur Koestler and Whittaker Chambers. More recently, the term "neoconservatives" was applied to former liberals who had moved right not just on foreign policy ("neocon" is now shorthand for a supporter of the Iraq war) but also on social issues such as affirmative action and crime.

The traffic is two-way. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Times reported, "came to Wellesley as an 18-year-old Republican, a copy of Barry Goldwater's right-wing treatise, 'The Conscience of a Conservative,' on the shelf of her freshman dorm room. She would leave as an antiwar Democrat whose public rebuke of a Republican senator in a graduation speech won her notice in Life magazine as a voice for her generation."

So: Did former leftists move right because their liberal "cognitive style" alerted them to an alternative route to the just society? If that was the case, why didn't those same adventuresome brain cells eventually trigger a leftward relapse? And if the mark of a true conservative, neo or otherwise, is a neurologically grounded reluctance to change, can converts to the cause be trusted? Those, Dr. Amodio, are the real brain-teasers.

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