Experts Say Liberal And Conservative Brains Are Wired Differently

There are fundamental differences in the way they solve non-political problems.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

In addition to casting different votes at the ballot box, it's no secret that liberals and conservatives view the world differently. There's even some evidence that they prefer different beers.

But the divide goes quite a bit deeper, according to new research. Liberals and conservatives use different cognitive strategies to solve non-political problems, Northwestern University researchers report in a new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

We already know that the moral profiles of liberals and conservatives are different, according to a previous 2015 study: Liberals tend to value equality, fairness and protecting the vulnerable, while conservatives emphasize patriotism, group loyalty, respect for authority and moral purity.

But this new research finds that the differences extend to basic problem solving and learning.

"Conservatives tend to be more structured, rigid and to prefer clear answers, whereas liberals have a higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity and greater openness," Carola Salvi, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive psychology at Northwestern and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, told The Huffington Post.

“Liberals have a higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity and greater openness.”

The study analyzed 129 Northwestern students, screening their political beliefs then matching 22 self-identified liberals with 22 self-identified conservatives of the same age and ethnicity. Students who identified as independent or apolitical were excluded from the experiment.

The researchers tasked the matched students with solving a word association problem, then analyzed their problem-solving methodology. Students were give three connected words ("pine," "crab" and "sauce," for example) and instructed to find the missing link (answer: apple).

Liberals and conservatives solved a similar number of problems correctly, but the way they cracked the question's code differed. Both cohorts used step-by-step analysis to solve some of the problems, but liberals were more likely to employ a second problem-solving method -- called insight thinking -- than conservatives were.

“Conservatives tend to be more structured, rigid and to prefer clear answers.”

According to Salvi, "insight thinking" occurs when you suddenly figure out the solution to a problem that had previously confounded you, without any formalized strategy for reaching that solution (sometimes called "Aha!" or Eureka thinking). Salvi emphasized that insight thinking isn't the same as a having a gut feeling or guessing. Instead, the researchers believe that it's linked to creativity. "You have this creative solution for a problem you are trying to solve," Salvi said.

"Insight is only one part of creativity,” study author Mark Beeman told the New Yorker in 2014. “But we can measure it. We have a temporal marker that something just happened in the brain. I’d never say that’s all of creativity, but it’s a central, identifiable component.”

Liberals are more creative

Shutterstock / mapichai

Indeed, there's some evidence that creative thinking is more closely associated with liberals than with conservatives. According to the study authors:

Liberalism, novelty seeking, and creativity all share the tendency (or the ability) to think in ways that differ from established lines of thought (in the case of novelty seeking and creativity by associating previously unrelated elements with each other). Indeed, novelty seeking is seen more often in liberals and may be related to genetic variations in neurotransmitter functions, which are also important for creativity.

In contrast, conservatism is inversely related to personality traits like openness and novelty seeking, which may lead conservative-minded people to use more analytical (and less creative) problem-solving strategies.

Still, it's important to note that these problem-solving differences only apply to closed problems with undisputed solutions, meaning that liberals don't have an edge over conservatives when drawing up the latest budget plan. The study was also conducted among college students, whose political affiliations aren't necessarily fixed, and could change as they age and enter the workforce.

"It’s not that one way to solve the problem is better than the other," Salvi said. "It’s more about which process people end up engaging in to solve the problem.

"We didn’t test the subjects on political problems, which probably don’t have one solution."

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