In the current global political climate it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the traditional left and right, but almost everyone easily identifies an extremist. Especially extremists with whom you disagree.
How to turn a conservative into a progressive… and vice versa
For example, someone extremist might call for the death penalty for women who have abortions, while another extremist might call for the abolition of private property. On the contrary, moderate people can agree with a law of deadlines for abortion, or policies of redistribution of resources, regardless of their political affiliation.
Early research on the brain and political ideas found differences between conservative and progressive personalities: individuals on the left are more likely to show empathy and openness to new experiences, to base their moral judgments on avoiding harm and promoting fairness. Those on the right are more likely to be meticulous and polite, to place greater importance on purity, authority, and group distinctions, and to value safety, conformity, and tradition.
It’s not what you believe, but how you believe it
Recent scientific research looks not so much at the idea that is believed, but at how people believe that idea. Instead of talking about left and right, they are talking about dogmatism and innovation. When a person is dogmatic about something, innovation is not possible, since it requires questioning one’s own beliefs.
In an experiment at University College London, scientists examined people with radical ideas from the left and right. These people present an exaggerated certainty in their ideas, dogmatism and intolerance. Given a series of neutral tests (such as counting the number of dots in a picture), when they made a mistake they were less able to detect that they had been wrong. That is, the part of their brain that deals with correcting and accepting their own mistakes was less developed than in other people.
There are several possible explanations for these differences. Several studies have found relationships between political attitudes and brain structure. Progressive people show a greater development of the cingulate cortex, where empathy and emotional regulation reside, and, on the contrary, a greater development of the amygdala, where fear is located, in more conservative and reactionary people.
Another explanation is genetic: associations have been discovered between variations in genes involved in the regulation and transport of serotonin and dopamine and the probability that a person will vote or not, and that this trait is hereditary. Voting is a common measure of how strong someone’s political convictions are.
Finally, there is the neurological explanation, which is based on how people learn to perceive and process information. In a study in usa Participants were given neutral tasks in the form of games, such as identifying shapes on the screen, telling which way they were moving, remembering where they were, etc.
They also found that conservatism and nationalism were associated with greater caution but, paradoxically, also with less processing of available information. Dogmatism, of any sign, was associated with impulsive tendencies and poorly considered decisions.
Religiosity led to an exaggerated perception of risk, and extreme pro-group attitudes, including approval of violence against outgroups, were associated with poorer short-term memory, slow processing, and a tendency toward impulsivity and sensation seeking.
According to the researchers, these results indicate that extremism can be a consequence of alterations in the functions of perception and cognition. However, other studies also leave room for hope. Interventions in schools to present images that break stereotypes, such as a female president of the Government, increase mental flexibility and reduce dogmatism. We are on time.
* Darío Pescador is editor and director of the quo magazine and author of the book your best self Posted by Oberon.