Fear, psychology, and politics

There’s a growing body of evidence demonstrating the difference in brain structure between liberals and conservatives (which just might explain why each side thinks the other is brain damaged).

Conservatives tend to have a larger and more active right amygdala [1], a part of the brain associated with fear, for lack of a better word. This isn’t to say conservatives are cowardly. Instead, it manifests as more active fight-or-flight responses or a focus on preventing negative outcomes rather than working toward positive goals [2]. Conservatives learn better from negative stimuli and are more risk avoidant than liberals [3].

Liberals’ brains tend to have a greater volume of the anterior cingulate cortex [1]. The ACC appears to monitor conflicting information and allow one to tolerate uncertainty. While they’re more open to new experiences than conservatives, they’re also less orderly [4].

Remember- this is not an either/or thing. Conservatives can be open to new things and liberals have fight/flight responses. This is simply physiological explanation of one’s tendency toward a behavior.

What I found really interesting in the video below was considering the brain’s plasticity- it makes the political tendencies and the brain structure a chicken & egg question. Brain structure is a more accurate predictor of political affiliation than even the affiliation of one’s parents. So do we think the way we do because of our physiology? How much does our brain structure change from our thoughts/experience? To what degree can a person really change their ideology? It’s a great example of remembering that correlation is not causation.

I think back to when I taught concealed carry in Arizona and carried a pistol with me everywhere, despite never having been violently accosted. While I still think firearms are cool, I quit worrying about worst-case scenarios because they’re so exceedingly rare that they’re statistically implausible. But back then, confirmation bias had me poring over case studies of violent self-defense to the point it seemed to be everywhere. I’m guessing my right amygdala was pretty healthy.

This also explains the politics of fear we see today, specifically the completely untrue statements of Donald Trump being taken seriously. “Make America Great Again” implies that this isn’t currently a great nation- which is a completely subjective value statement but faces me to ask what people really think is so wrong. How have Trump supporters actually been harmed? The fear-mongering about illegal immigrants flies in the face of reality- that population has been on the decline since 2007 [5]. Saying we “lose” in trade deals with China is another false, fear-based bit of rhetoric based in ignorance- Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange (not a Chinese exchange, or Dubai, or European) because America is the financial hegemon of the world. The jobs farmed out to China are low-tech, low-skill menial labor; we have them make our stuff because we’re too wealthy and educated to those jobs anymore.

But fear-mongering is effective. It’s handed Trump the GOP nomination without a whit of fact to his claims. It’s led to a fight over public bathrooms in North Carolina, despite that fact that no transgender people have ever been arrested for sexual misconduct in a bathroom, but three Republican lawmakers have [6]. I’ve already placed my bet that news ratings have more to do with sensationalism than anything, but let’s expand on that topic.: The only thing that outsells fear is sex, which is why women on cable news all show their legs while discussing the next big threat to America. Ratings double whammy.

The problem with fear-based thinking is that it’s Type 1, which means it’s not rigorously analyzed. Fear-based reasoning is rarely sound, but there is a sound reason it happens.

[1]Kanai, Ryota, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees. “Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults.” Current biology 21, no. 8 (2011): 677-680.

[2] Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. “To provide or protect: Motivational bases of political liberalism and conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry 20, no. 2-3 (2009): 120-128.

[3] Shook, Natalie J., and Russell H. Fazio. “Political ideology, exploration of novel stimuli, and attitude formation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, no. 4 (2009): 995-998.

[4] Carney, Dana R., John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff Potter. “The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind.” Political Psychology 29, no. 6 (2008): 807-840.

[5] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/20/what-we-know-about-illegal-immigration-from-mexico/

[6] U.S. Senator Larry Craig, FL state Rep Bob Allen, MS Congressman Jon Hinson.

The neuroscience of enlightenment

I’ve written before that our brain is everything that makes us who we are. That big “a-ha!” moment or revelation we have has specific and predictable brain activity. That life changing experience is brain activity- and the re-writing of neural pathways. Fascinating stuff.

Ed. note- Since I’m publishing more regularly over the summer break, a bit of a rhythm is beginning to occur. The increasing number of views seems to correspond with publishing frequency, so I decided to publish three times a week instead of just twice. Maybe because I’m compulsive, I’ve realized a way to theme each day to incorporate my interests. Mental Mondays will relate to psychology or critical thought in some way. Witticism Wednesday will be a quote from a greater mind than mine. Free-writing Friday will be anything goes- from travel to my obsession with gadgets. I’ll try to maintain this schedule until classes resume in August or it becomes evident it’s not working.

Being aware of one’s own brain


By and large, our most important organ is transparent to us. We can feel our heart racing after we run, or lungs on fire from holding our breath too long. We see, hear, feel things at our fingertips, taste… We even feel our stomachs growl. But all of those are functions of our brain functioning, which we generally don’t notice or think about.

We feel emotions, but we’re not aware of the hormones in our brain that cause them. Who has ever said, “I feel a little heavy on the dopamine today”?

This is fascinating, because to the best of our knowledge our brain is everything and the only thing that makes us who we are. The synapses firing, invisible to our own perception, are who we are. We don’t see or feel our brain- we are our brain.

Everything you are is contained in a three-pound mass between your ears.

Traumatic brain injuries bear this out, not just in cognitive function or physical ability, but personality. In 1848 railroad foreman Phineas Gage was injured in an explosion that drive a metal rail through his skull. He suffered no physical impairment aside from losing vision in his left eye, but his personality changed drastically.

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires…. Previous to his injury, though untrained in schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.” (Harlow, 1868, pp.339-340)

The amount of psychology in my degree program has been an unexpected delight. Learning so much about the quirks and oddities of brain function, like the blind spot of the human eye, of which we go through life unaware has been fascinating and done more to expand my understanding of people than anything else.

I seem to remember a passage in my psych 101 textbook that encapsulated the thought perfectly, but after hours of flipping through its pages I still can’t find it. Perhaps I imagined it? Maybe it’s an invented memory?

If you’ve never watched Brain Games, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It does an amazing job of highlighting just how fallible our perception of reality can be. One of the main reasons I strive to be an empiricist, fact-check everything, and only believe what is verifiable is because I’m aware easily we are otherwise fooled.

And I never saw that shift in epistemology coming.

Progressives. Are they?

After my essay (if you can call it that) expressing my distrust of those who invoke the U.S. Constitution too freely my dad asked a great question: how do I feel about progressives? The reason I think this is so great is because it’s going to require a lot more writing. The constitution thing is simple; it can be boiled down to people use too simplistically, incorrectly, and as a thing-that-shall-not-be-questioned rather than think critically about an issue. But the label of “progressive”? That’s a fractured topic of inaccurate labels, subtext, assumptions, hijacking ideals…. So buckle in, because this feels like a long one.

Before going any further, I think it’s important to de-conflate some of these terms. They sometimes get used in place of one another, but they have separate and distinct definitions and shouldn’t be owned by the political right or left. Because I want to communicate as clearly as possible, and have been part of far too many philosophical debates, it’s time to define terms. Again, these terms can be used independently of political right/left connotations.

  • progressive – the characteristic of making forward progress
  • regressive – the opposite of progressive, moving backward in development
  • conservative – holding to tradition; cautious of change
  • liberal – open to new ideas and broader knowledge; Latin root “liber”, as in liberty
  • liberalism – John Locke’s philosophy founded on ideas of liberty and equality
    • classical liberalism emphasizes the role of liberty
    • social liberalism stresses the importance of equality
  • reactionary – favoring a return to the previous state of society

The first thing to reiterate is that these terms are not actually interchangeable, nor exclusive to the political right or left. A leftist that is doxastically closed to the idea of private gun ownership being positive cannot fairly be called a liberal by the actual definition of the word. If a right-wing Republican is also a fan of science, technology, and futurism it would be unfair to characterize them as conservative.

The labels of conservative and liberal can unfairly blanket people. When Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California he did so as a “social liberal, but fiscal conservative” or vice versa precisely because 40% of the population didn’t neatly align with every issue and called themselves moderate. My dad once told me he thought a moderate was somebody that didn’t stand for anything, but as I’ve gotten older I realize it’s somebody who stands for mixture of positions. A person can both oppose abortion and be in favor of legalizing marijuana, for example, but I digress.

My point is that we use these terms as placeholders or catch-alls to encompass an awful lot, and I think we risk damaging the words from misuse. I am proud to say I’m a liberal because I’m a huge fan of freedom, but I am absolutely not a leftist. I contend that the rise of the religious right, conservative talk radio, and Fox News have unfairly demonized the word liberal and conflated it with leftist. Because liberal became a dirty word, many on the left began rebranding themselves as progressive, which is also a conflation of terms. And this is where things start to become sticky.

“Everyone knows history is written by the winners, but that cliche misses a crucial detail: Over time, the winners are always the progressives. Conservatism can only win in the short term, because society cannot stop evolving (and social evolution inevitably dovetails with the agenda of those who see change as an abstract positive). It might take seventy years, but it always happens eventually.”
― Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat

Klosterman is probably my favorite living author and when I first read this passage in 2013 it hit my consciousness like a slap in the face. I had been raised as a conservative, but this quote was unassailably true. Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, prohibition of child labor, civil rights, desegregation… All of these are morally agreeable to conservatives today, but were undeniably progressive for the era in which they happened.

This is not meant to offend those on the political right but to highlight the definition of the terms: the most conservative societies on the planet right now are in the Muslim world. Several haven’t changed in hundreds of years and by western standards they remain horrifically backward concerning human rights.

See? I told you I’m a liberal but not a leftist. (If you don’t get the difference yet, you will.)

Allow me to quote Peter Boghossian at unfortunate length because he did a great job of explaining the how and why liberalism and the left are not synonymous.

     “Liberalism is a creation of the seventeenth century, fathered by British philosopher John Locke. For Locke, liberalism means limited government, the rule of law, due process, freedom of assembly, separation of church and state, and separation of government powers into branches that oversee each other’s authority.

Locke’s classical liberalism evolved over time and became social liberalism – a creation of the nineteenth century – whose father is another British thinker, Thomas Hill Green. Green wrote about positive freedom, described human beings as fundamentally good, and argued for a social and economic order devoted to promoting the common good.

In the twentieth century, social liberalism evolved further still, with its dominant strain becoming contemporary academic leftism. This current manifestation of liberalism is a skeleton of former incarnations and is best described not by what it is, but by the parasitic ideologies that have given that skeleton its corrupted form: relativism, subjectivity, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, respect for difference, and inclusion. These invasive values betray classical and social liberalism’s history of standing for basic freedoms and fighting all forms of tyranny.

Historically, there’s nothing intrinsic to liberalism that necessarily weds it to the ideologies currently piggybacking on it.” -Peter Boghossian

That’s a long enough quote already (red text my emphasis) but he continues to say he hopes liberalism can be decoupled from contemporary academic leftism. He also notes that social liberalism was a good thing because it recognized people’s freedoms were curtailed by circumstance (e.g. being born black during segregation), but leftism gets into thought policing. Prejudice directed at people is bad, but cultural criticism is directed at ideas and therefore good. (I really do keep coming back to critical thinking.) Classical liberalism says it’s survival of the fittest in the free marketplace of ideas, but leftists declare certain ideas to be beyond criticism and this causes a real schism.

Prohibiting criticism of an idea is effectively a form of tyranny, not liberalism. The squelching of free speech is the hallmark of dictators, not free men. A society based on freedom can handle dissenting ideas and debate them like rational adults. Silencing opposition with character-damaging accusations like calling them racist, sexist or bigoted is not an act motivated by a love of freedom. Smearing or lying about about a political opponent does not move society forward. And here’s where I finally get to how I feel about “progressives”. Most of them aren’t.

“I’m a firm believer that good ideas always beat out bad ideas if you let the light shine on both of them. It’s not liberal, or even decent to shout down ideas just because you don’t like them.” -Dave Rubin

There’s a reason Dave Rubin calls them the regressive left; they stifle dissent with cries of racism and bigotry when they hear an idea they don’t like. This is a backward step for society, no different than Galileo being convicted of heresy for (correctly) holding the belief that the earth revolves around the sun. The extreme left may call themselves progressive but they’re the furthest thing from it.

Several months ago I wrote an essay that brought up the need to discuss horseshoe theory, and this serves to remind me that I really should get to that. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been (to my recollection) fairly anti-authoritarian, but I really can see the similarities when either political left or right lack opposition. Totalitarianism is a different issue than left or right and it can occur on either side; it’s communist on the left and fascist on the right. I’m distrustful of any form of unchecked authority, unsubstantiated claim, or “because I said so”. So now I’ll go a step further: “social justice warriors” (SJW) are a cancer to freedom.

When you get to the furthest extremes of the political left you encounter the regressives and then SJWs. These are the poisonous sods that scream things like, “Check your privilege!” or will insinuate an opinion isn’t valid if it comes from a white, cisgender individual. They’re the reason feminism today is associated with man-hating rather than anything positive.

While I am all for equality of the sexes, SJWs are the reason I hate feminists (which was going to be a separate essay). They’re not progressive in the least. They’re regressive ideologues that shout about imagined injustice of the patriarchy rather than fairly assess the fact that we’re a sexually dimorphic species. Anyone truly in favor of equality of the sexes (and race, religion, political affiliation, sexual preference, etc. ad nauseam) is a humanist, and wouldn’t label themselves in favor of just one demographic slice. But I digress again.

Allow me to backtrack to my anti-authoritarian tendencies. I firmly believe the Republican party has been hijacked by right-wing extremists. Reagan couldn’t be elected today by those who claim to idolize him because he used to negotiate, compromise, and reach across the aisle to get things done. Contrast that with Ted Cruz and the far right of today who believe in no compromise obstructionism and government shut-downs when they don’t get their way. John Boehner was given the boot for lacking ideological purity despite extremely high conservative scores by the conservative Club for Growth and American Conservative Union. Sarah Palin recently threatened to campaign against Paul Ryan, a devoted Ayn Rand fan, for the same reason. They’ve gone completely insane.

Self-titled progressives are the exact same thing on the opposite side of the coin. If you dissent, even as a liberal, they label you the enemy and target you for character assassination. Just look at Ben Affleck (leftist) attacking Sam Harris (liberal). Harris had the audacity to frankly discuss Islam as the motherlode of bad ideas for its barbarism, abuses toward women, and human rights issues, all of which are true and was immediately condemned as a racist by Affleck. It didn’t matter that ideology is independent of race, the regressive reflex is to silence the opposition even if they’re both ideologically left of center through ad hominem attack. Regressives will attack their own for lacking ideological purity. Just look at anything put out by Cenk Uyger and the Young Turks or the constant controversy around Reza Aslan. The regressive left is a damaging force to democracy and the free exchange of ideas because they are ideologues of the highest order rather than critical thinkers. (I really do keep coming back to that, don’t I?) They are a cancer to a free republic.

Any objective reading of our nation’s founding documents makes it clear that this country was founded principles of classical liberalism and enlightenment values. Neither of which endorse the kind of authoritarianism that we can see rising on both extremes of the political spectrum. For freedom to survive, authoritarians must be resisted no matter what guise they wear. Klosterman is right about progressive ideals consistently winning over the course of time. It’s undeniable. But that doesn’t mean those who call themselves progressive actually are progressive, nor does it give them any moral authority if they act like regressives in practice and fear critical examination of beliefs. Then they’re just bullies.

Science vs. pseudoscience

One of the most enlightening things about going to back to school has been learning the actual scientific method, hypothesis testing, etc. There’s an awful lot of pseudoscience and pseudo-scholarship out there successfully masquerading as the real thing. The unfortunate reality is that many people get duped into believing things because the shell game is convincing: here’s the thing you already want to believe anyway, devoid of actual evidence but wrapped in scientific-sounding garb. For example, a great deal of scientifically illiterate people think they know the definition of science as that which is observable and repeatable. This is pseudo science. It sounds plausible, but in reality it’s a narrow redefinition of science that fits their agenda and nothing outside their agenda. In reality, the scientific method would be better defined as the testing of falsifiable predictions.

As mentioned in the video, pseudoscience confirms what a person wants to believe. Science is in the business of falsification. It’s hypothesis testing 101.

Trying to prove something is true automatically means one is approaching the issue the wrong way. If you want to validate the truth of something with any intellectual honesty, you need to examine the contradictory evidence. We should assail our beliefs at every opportunity, because only those that withstand scrutiny are reasonable to hold.

Unintentional hypocrisy

With respect to the First Amendment, almost everyone across the political spectrum is a hypocrite to some degree. We can all think of cases when we have wanted an ironclad and expansive interpretation of it to protect behavior we approve of and a narrow and exclusive reading to restrict behavior we disapprove of. But those who treat the Constitution as an inerrant text seem to have more problems than others. Money is speech, according to their view, and unlimited campaign contributions are an unfettered right for which our forefathers threw out the British tyrants. Flag burning, on the other hand, is not free expression, because they don’t like it. (There is an additional irony here: The flag is a secular symbol, so to refer to burning the flag as a “desecration,” as flag amendment proponents habitually do, applies sacred language to a secular symbol, reflecting the sort of idol worship that the Bible explicitly forbids.) When opponents of a Republican administration dare to make statements critical of government policy in times of war, the faithful will accuse them of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” But when the governor of a southern state talks about secession from the United States in response to a federal government policy he doesn’t like, there is no mention of treason.
-Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, pp.47-48

Mike Lofgren spent 28 years working as a Republican U.S. Congressional aide on Capitol Hill, working for John Kasich among others. He has an insider’s view, has witnessed the growing dysfunction of our government first-hand, and does a wonderful job of using critical thinking skills in his book to show the conflict between political rhetoric and reality.

The just world fallacy

It’s another cheat day for the blog, here. I’ll probably start writing a lot more in May or June, once this semester lets out, but for now I’ll settle for sharing interesting and entertaining thoughts.

One of my favorite aspects of psychology has been learning the mistakes we (humans) reliably make. Like imagining faces or people in shadows or clouds or mountains that obviously aren’t actually there (pareidolia), confirmation bias, seeing patterns where there are none, or the Dunning-Kruger effect (thinking one knows more about a topic than they actually do)… We have an amazing capacity to disregard reality in order to suit ourselves, and that fascinates me. Here’s a video about another type of cognitive error we subconsciously make. It’s short and fun, so enjoy!