December 30, 2010

Conservative brains are full of fear

Fans of the classical (but probably incorrect) blank slate hypothesis of the human brain won't like this: new research (not yet published at a peer review journal, will be in the near future) has found that conservative people have a larger amygdala, a primitive almond-shaped part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety.

It is unclear if this physical/neurological trait is caused by the ideology, which is clearly based on fear of any change and attachment to some learned values, or if, inversely, it is the biological trait which causes conservative ideology. Different research, earlier this year found that people with more liberal ideology tend to share a variant of the DRD4 gene, which may be a cause of openness to novel ideas (which in turn may increase adaptability, as hyper-specialists invariably go extinct in the long term).

Source: Salon

Also, in regard to the role played by the amygdala in fear, you may be interested in this story (another scientific research) about a woman whose amygdalas were destroyed by a disease and who feels no fear whatsoever (what also has its downsides: fear is a natural emotion or instinct that plays a clear role in survival).

Additionally, Razib mentions today that conservatives (in the USA) tend to be fatter than average. Maybe they have to compensate for their quasi-permanent state of panic by giving themselves continuous treats?

Update (Jan 13): Amygdala stores "Pavlovian fear conditioning"  according to the latest PLoS ONE paper on the matter by H.G. Bergstrom and colleagues.


  1. The obesity-conservatism link is a case of two consequences of a common Southern culture. Conservatives are disproportionately from the American South. The diet of the American South is fattening. Ergo, conservatives are disproportionately fat.

  2. It appears to be a recreation science(and thus probably incorrect). But what are the implications. Conservatives or fundamentalists who fear change in the society or open society are the biggest bullies. They create terrorists. Does that mean they fear unknown things but can create fear among the known population. Or in other words they don't fear the existing world.

    What is the opposite (the smaller amygdala?). So, the open minded people don't fear change or the unknown things but do they fear the real, existing life?

    What about normal people?

    Anyway, the science behind it looks too limited.

  3. Fear is a useful emotion when in the correct apportion (prevents danger, helps surviving, helps social adaptation through shame) but it is also has drawbacks: can be paralyzing or induce irrational behavior (panic).

    And most importantly for what matters here fear is the foundation of hatred. Hatred is a complex (semi-rational, social, manipulable) emotion in which rage is directed by means of fear (typically against less fearful elements such as minorities and others you can bully or you are safely protected from). Hatred is the daily bread of all fascisms, be them of European, Islamic, Zionist or whatever other tailoring. Fascism is nothing but enraged (and arguably panicky) conservatism.

    I'd say conservative leaders are seldom truly conservative in this sense: they are more like real-life warlocks who are good at manipulating power resorts and emotions and find in the panicky conservative subset of people a good group to manipulate in favor of the persistence of the status quo or even the recovery of more or less imaginary past glory.

    A good complementary read could be: "Listen, little man" of Wilhelm Reich. Which is a demolishing detailed critique of the extremely insecure personality, needy of medals and other emotional walking-sticks, that feeds authoritarianism.

    "Anyway, the science behind it looks too limited".

    Well, conservative people have bigger amygdalas seems to fit the requirements of any scientific theory. It can be proven wrong if the data cannot be reproduced independently. The strong connection of fear and the amygdala is confirmed in the case of that peculiar woman with no fear at all.

    What is yet to be proven clearly is whether this is genetic or psychological. Nature, nurture or a mix of both...

    As always I imagine that, in any case, the conservative and the liberal personalities (and whatever in between) are in dynamic equilibrium, as each offers some pros and some cons. I won't say that attaching to the "known evil" has not some advantages, though I generally prefer the "good to find out" (but this is my subjective choice).

    Probably there is a continuum, with most people being in fact in the gray zone, however if society (as it does and has done for millennia) generally favors those who sheepishly accept the status quo, the tame ones, a harmful bias is being introduced in this equilibrium, forcing the curious and innovative to pay a too high price and becoming rather unadaptive.

    This I am not happy about.

  4. "So, the open minded people don't fear change or the unknown things but do they fear the real, existing life?"

    Everybody has fear (except very anomalous cases as the woman mentioned). Fear is a most useful mechanism of survival and that is why it exists. What seems to be the case is that, directly related to the size of the amygdala, some people are more interested in exploration, innovation, etc. while others really dislike that. Most, as I said above, are probably in between and will lean to one or the other pole at times depending on circumstances (if the system is broken, it becomes clear that new alternatives have to be experimented, right? If the medicine-man fails once an again invoking rain, his support eventually collapses).

  5. I'd say conservative leaders are seldom truly conservative in this sense: they are more like real-life warlocks who are good at manipulating power resorts and emotions and find in the panicky conservative subset of people a good group to manipulate in favor of the persistence of the status quo or even the recovery of more or less imaginary past glory.

    I wonder the size of the amygdala in these opportunists and how it differs from the 'liberals'.

    A good complementary read could be: "Listen, little man" of Wilhelm Reich.

    Thank you.

    What is yet to be proven clearly is whether this is genetic or psychological. Nature, nurture or a mix of both...

    For males in developed societies can't we say, nurture factor is almost zero.

  6. "I wonder the size of the amygdala in these opportunists and how it differs from the 'liberals'".

    I'd be glad to make a vivisection in this particular case... ;p

    "For males in developed societies can't we say, nurture factor is almost zero".

    I have no idea why you claim that. Nurture's value is never zero, for nobody, nowhere.

  7. Nurture's value is never zero, for nobody, nowhere.

    But it can't be uniform too. Can it? How can we quantify this factor?

    Consider a male from a developing country seeped of superstitions and gullible and consider a male from a developed country atheist and inquisitive. Both living in societies whose outlook not much different from their own. I would consider in former's case nurture factor is 100% but 0% in the latter's case.

  8. To be inquisitive and atheist may also be product of nurture, right? And to be superstitious may well be a product of nature, I guess.

    You are quantifying (and exaggerating) cultural elements, because even if there is a natural propensity to science, there is also a cultural element to it, I am sure.

    And in any case it's not a black&white matter of 0% vs. 100%.

    Another counter-example: Chinese are not particularly developed, yet they are the most atheist anywhere on Earth. And it's not because communist ideology, tough it may help, but because Chinese culture was always that way. South Koreans are next in line, it seems.

  9. I need to rephrase what I have to say (and probably may still be non-coherent).

    An open society provides 'blank slate' environment for a male(of European descent only) and the closed society provides the complete opposite (What is the term?). In other words open society is a 'blank slate' nurture.

    Thus, I would say, nurture in an open society is 0% and in a closed society it's 100%.

    Thus the higher level behavioural characteristics among males of European descent in open societies can be attributed solely to genetics.

  10. I understand what you mean but I cannot agree with the conclusions. While a highly ideological society may indeed nurture a larger and more authoritarian "superego", the deideologized (????) society still nurtures a superego even if it's more lax and relaxed.

    Also there are undeveloped societies like the Hadza who do not believe in a netherworld (highly materialist and pragmatic, up to the point they do not even seem to bury their dead) and there are developed societies full of superstitions and faith (like the USA, though it seems this trait is quickly declining, said Andrew on his blog).

    There is an element in Capitalism that is decodifying, indeed (by means of both science and corruption, both). And decodification means a weaker superego an a rawer human being in a sense. But Capitalism itself is a nurture (post-genetic) element, so I cannot really agree with your conclusions, except very very vaguely.

  11. I think the problem is that of defining the 'blank slate' environment.

    When it comes to physical attributes one can think of environmental factors that affects it (eg. height-> diet). But what about behavioural attributes like this one? Can we decide upon the nurture factor and nullify it?

    Let's say if a society provides freedom from;
    - illiteracy
    - religion/superstition
    - financial dependency
    - identity
    can we call it a 'blank slate' society?

  12. I do not think there's such "blank slate" society. At best in ill-organized huntergatherer groups, if anything, but they are approximations (even chimpanzees have culture).

    A society like ours (or at least mine) with all kind of gadgets, economical expectations, traditions (yes, traditions such as religion still play some role), cultural expectations like literacy (nothing "blank" about that: it's a cultural tool), a complex economy in which you are expected to compete (instead of cooperate), zillions of laws (which you are expected to obey), bureaucracies, etc. is anything but a "blank slate": it is a highly complex society even if it has suppressed to a large extent some medieval burdens (often only to replace them by something else: king>president, baron>banker, retainer>policeman, peasant>worker, church>TV, superstition>economic pseudoscience, resurrection/reincarnation>promised "better" future, serfdom>mortgage, charity>social services, etc.)

    "Let's say if a society provides freedom from;
    - illiteracy"

    Oddly enough creates a dependence on literacy and also creates effective illiteracy among many members, who are mostly unable to understand anything a bit too complex, like a mortgage contract.

    "- religion/superstition"

    Replaces them by other ideologies like "democracy", "progress", "capitalism", all them with their own pseudoscientific schools (temples) entrenched in the universities and media.

    "- financial dependency"

    Workers are dependent on the whim of their employers, who can easily send them to the hell of unemployment and lack of any sort of financial means. Financial dependency is a sad reality in all industrial societies.

    "- identity"

    People always have an identity. Of course an imposed one (your "nationality" in ID cards or other documents), but also other emotional ones, learned through childhood or adopted more or less willingly in adulthood. Nobody lacks an identity, even if it may be a complex one.

  13. What do conservatives fear? I would say it's other people as conservatives see the human species as flawed and expect existing tendencies of human nature to continue.

    Liberals are really the opposite. They have faith that new social arangements will bring about an alteration in human nature. I think more people are born with a tendency to liberalism in the west than other parts of the world. Where there is no law and order people who are inherently trusting will be taken advantage of and hence only in the west would an open trusting nature be an advantage.

    Razib certainly isn't a fearful person considering he takes vitamin D and ignores the deleterious effects which are already starting to appear (going by the photo on his blog).

  14. You may be right, Ken. There's a pessimism about human nature in conservatism and an optimism in liberalism/socialism. On the other hand conservatives are optimistic about institutions and lefties are pessimistic about them most of the time.

    "Razib certainly isn't a fearful person"...

    He's quite liberal considering his ethno-cultural background, even if he's rather conservative in some aspects for a westerner.

    Anyhow, particular individuals do not matter, it's an statistical finding. I can imagine that there are conservatives with small amygdalas and lefties with big ones. It's just a trait and not the whole personality.

  15. Other correlates of amygdala size (the first ones to show up on google): -

    "The amygdala is most commonly associated with the emotions of fear and anxiety, and its size is positively correlated to the level of aggression in a given species. It is also associated with the emotion of pleasure, though mainly in a negative sense, i.e., the pleasure sometimes inherent in aggression."

    "In humans the amygdala is the brain structure that varies most widely between the sexes. When males are castrated, the size of their amygdala shrinks by 30%. Depression has been associated with asymmetrical amygdala sizes."

    "The amygdala is a brain structure crucial for regulating emotions. But the size of the amygdala also reveals just how rich and varied a social life a person leads. The bigger your amygdala is, the bigger your social network.

    "A reluctance to make eye contact seems to be connected with having a small amygdala both in people with autism and in their healthy siblings. Thus the link is probably inherited.

    One of the major behavioral abnormalities displayed by individuals with autism—a reluctance to interact with other people—appears to be related to that almond-shaped danger-detector deep in the brain, the amygdala."

    "Depressive subjects had significantly enlarged amygdala size and significantly reduced hippocampal size compared with controls. Depressive subjects were significantly impaired in learning emotional facial expressions, with deficits being most pronounced for fearful, surprised and disgusted faces. Depressive subjects with amygdala volumes 1 SD or more above the mean of control subjects showed the strongest impairments. Correlation analyses revealed that larger left amygdala volumes were significantly related to worse memory performance and to higher anxiety scores of depressive subjects. Smaller left hippocampal volumes of depressive subjects were related to higher anxiety scores as well."

    "ISLAMABAD: A part of the brain involved in both drug craving and judgment appears to be smaller in cocaine addicts than in healthy people, researchers have found.

    However, (the researcher) pointed to evidence that supports a causal role. For example, amygdala volume did not correspond with the level of a person’s drug abuse; cocaine users in the study had abused the drug for anywhere from one to 27 years, yet had similar reductions in amygdala size."

    "Through interviews and questionnaires, the team found that patients with the greater amount of amygdala left intact after surgery had a larger sex drive.

    Researchers must now test whether this holds true in the general population by comparing amygdala size and sexuality in a large group

    Scientists traditionally think of the amygdala as the part of the brain that processes reactions to fear. But some researchers think it may help us to focus our attention on any emotional cues - be they fearful or provocative. Hence, a larger amygdala might boost the likelihood of a sexual trigger leading to arousal, Reutens suggests."


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