Fear vs Science

Taylor Hickem
4 min readNov 22, 2020
source : https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/glossary/cingulate-cortex/

The neuroscience of the differences in cognitive patterns between conservatives and liberals.

Neurological constraints for activists

Something that gets overlooked by many ambitious activists is the reality check of the neurological basis for the Overton window of what is politically possible in a democratic society based on majority rules, and furthermore the tactical messaging strategies that are going to appeal across the aisle. There are a lot of people who don’t think the way you do, it’s hard-wired into their brains, and those are the cards you are dealt with

Brain structure, activity predict political affiliation to >70% accuracy. Conservative brains lean on fear-based center in the Amygdala, resisting new info whereas liberal brains are welcoming to change based on new info in the cortex such as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex Gyrus (ACCg)

The implications is that two people receiving the same information may perceive and react to that information in completely different ways because of the way that their brain is conditioned and configured. The kinds of messaging and logic that appeals to conservatives is different from the messages that appeal to liberals. This is difficult and counter-intuitive since each individual thinks first to their own decision making logic to appeal to the other side and it has the opposite effect of further entrenching the division.

Nature vs nurture

Which comes first? Do the brain structures cause the thinking pattern or do the patterns shape the brain? As with everything in neuroscience the answer is both. Another predictor of political affiliation is ones parents affiliation. Parents though is ambiguous since parents are both the source of genes and also social conditioning. Twin studies (comparison between twins and fraternal siblings) find that more than 50% of neurological predisposition to authoritarian or egalitarian political beliefs can be linked to genetic differences.

Throughout the entire life cycle starting from the womb the brain is relatively plastic. Being exposed to certain types of thinking and parenting styles can reinforce and shape the brain permanently, especially during the formative development periods from pre-natal, early childhood and adolescence.

Fear and novelty

Conservative brains tend to have larger structures in the fear-based Amygdala, which is associated with the fight-or-flight reflexive response. When faced with a risky decision conservatives tend to fall back on prior beliefs, heuristics, loyalty and familiarity and resist change. The Amygdala fear-sensitive brains have more of a predisposition to authoritarian logic, loyalty, religion and resist change which all share in common logic of a fear or suspicion of the unknown or unfamiliar.

I’m using the terms ‘conservative brain’ and ‘liberal brain’ for purposes of drawing a contrast and understanding patterns, but not as a stereotype to say that all individuals that identify as either ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ fit this description at all times.

Liberal brains in contrast have larger structures in the ACCg. The ACC performs a range of functions to to incorporate situational information into cognitive functions, calculation and decision making. Specifically the Gyrus (ACCg) is believed to incorporate others-oriented information about the conditions in the social environmental. When presented with a risky decision, liberal brains tend to activate circuits associated with making social calculations. The cognitive brains are novelty-sensitive and actively seek out and adapt to information facts, statistics so that they can process and determine whether this new information required them to change a decision or not. Related to this is an others-orientation to opening up and tuning in to a sense of their social environment and thus a disposition to egalitarian and democratic beliefs.

Science and social calculations

For those watching the video who got lost in the connection from social calculations to to scientific thinking – I’ll try to make the connection based on a summary of what I remember from other books I have read about neuroscience.

A useful way of thinking about the relationship between structure and function and how the brain has evolved over time is a pattern of “recruitment”. When the human species faces a demand for a new adaptive feature, instead of evolving new brain structures, instead pre-existing features are recruited to perform the new function. There is a lot of re-use of older more primitive structures for novel purposes. The time when humans have had mathematics and been engineers and scientists is relatively short compared to the time that we have been making complex social calculations. So you won’t find a separate “science calculator” and “social calculator” There's only one “general complex calculations” center and the ACC is part of that general circuitry. The pre-existing circuitry that was already there for making complex and nuanced social calculations is utilized and enhanced for performing these new types of calculations.

The video gives some examples of how not to use your own instinctive logic but instead to appeal to the others logic and language patterns. It’s not intuitive and may take some practice and intentional design effort.

If you managed to read to the end of this post or watched the entire video just remember, most likely an entire segment of the population tuned out and scrolled past in the first millisecond of glancing at this post.



Taylor Hickem

Applied research, engineering, and projects for solutions to sustainable cities. SG Green New Deal https://aseangreennewdeal.wixsite.com/home