The problem with studying Republican brains

Mother Jones has yet another article about the differences between Democratic and Republican brains. This research is both interesting and completely useless.

The Republican BrainFirst, let me sum up the gist of the findings in the most accurate and least sensational way that I possibly can.  For details, the Mother Jones article has references and links, and besides it is an easy enough topic to Google.  But my summary, to put things in quick perspective, is this:

Republicans, on average, have a greater aversion to the unknown. Republicans have a greater fear response. When taking risks, the part of the brain most activated in Republicans is the part of the brain associated with fear while the part of the brain most activated in Democrats is a part associated with other emotions.

That’s the Cliff Notes version.  Now, much more important than those findings, are some observations that always seem to be left out of these conversations when they are brought up on the internet:

1) We are talking about differences in averages.

For example, when you hear “Republican brains tend to be activated more by fear of the unknown”, you need to understand that this is purely a statement about the averages of  two very broad distributions. It is the same type of statement as “Men tend to be better at math than women.”  In other words: the difference is statistically “real” but it’s small, and there are plenty of specific  cases where it’s not true. There is a gigantic overlap, with plenty of individual Democrats who fall on the more-fear-driven side than plenty of individual Republicans, and vice versa.

2) We don’t know what caused what.

Your behavior and beliefs change the structure of your brain, just as the structure of your brain changes your behavior and your beliefs. Based on what we know so far, it could be plausible to think that living your entire life believing in Republican ideals conditions you to chronically stimulate activation in the fear-sensitive parts of your brain. There is absolutely no reason, based on data so far, to believe that people are born with a propensity for these neural differences which then turns into differences in ideology.

3) This makes absolutely no difference on a social or political level

Or, to phrase it more simply: who the hell cares?  Yes, yes: scientific inquiry is always interesting for its own sake, and we should always gather knowledge. Fine, whatever. But whether there are average differences in the neurology of Republicans or Democrats makes no difference to how we should think of their views, and it makes no difference for public policy, and it makes no difference when judging how good or bad their ideas are.

This needs to be pointed out, because there are so many people who will try to moralize or pontificate about the implications of this research in ways that are completely irrational.

On the one hand, there will be the people who use this type of research to divide. “OMG, look this is proof that all Republicans are driven by irrational fear of the unknown! They really ARE all paranoid crazies! It’s a mental defect!”

On the other hand, there will be the people who use this type of research to try to get people to get along better.  “Look, these people aren’t just angry and mean, there is a real biological reason for their feelings! We should feel sympathy for them!”

 

Both of these arguments are bullshit.

Having a neural correlate to your behaviors or beliefs does not mean you are not responsible for your choices. It does not make your choices any more valid, or any less valid, than they were before we knew about the neural correlates.

(Incidentally, on some level, we should eventually have a conversation about whether it’s even possible to have differences in behavior and beliefs that do not have correlated differences in neurology… but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Your ideology is yours.  It is your own. It is your Precious. And you must take responsibility for it no matter what is going on with your biology.

The way you choose to treat people, the public policies that you choose to support, and the causes that you fight for are completely your own responsibility.  Neural correlates are neither an explanation nor an excuse.

If you still have doubts, think about this analogy to something much more simple: your taste in food. The structure of our tastebuds makes us all biased to want to eat as much salt and fat as we can get our hands on. But if you are a fat slob who sits on the couch eating potato chips all day, you are still a fat slob who sits on the couch eating potato chips all day. That is your choice, regardless of the biological structure of your tastebuds.

 

So although it can be fun to do these “neural correlate” studies, from a sociological and public policy perspective they are meaningless.  A xenophobic asshole deserves neither pity nor understanding just because his brain is different from the brains of most people who are not xenophobic assholes. He is still a person who makes choices about how to treat others in the world.

 



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  1. John says:

    Nice post. Just to add another point to your list: The whole idea that amygdala activation can be read as “fear” is a gross oversimplification. The amygdala activates to whatever is emotionally relevant–to threats, when uncertain; to food, when hungry; even to puppies dancing through flowers, on a normal day. Given this broader finding about amygdala reactivity, it could be that Republicans, on average, on this particular test, were just more emotionally invested in the stimuli than others were.

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