Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


My brain has a politics of its own: neuropolitic musing on values and signal detection

Political psychology (just as politicians and voters) identifies two species of political values: left/right, or liberalism/conservatism. Reviewing many studies, Thornhill & Fincher (2007) summarizes the cognitive style of both ideologies:

Liberals tend to be: against, skeptical of, or cynical about familiar and traditional ideology; open to new experiences; individualistic and uncompromising, pursuing a place in the world on personal terms; private; disobedient, even rebellious rulebreakers; sensation seekers and pleasure seekers, including in the frequency and diversity of sexual experiences; socially and economically egalitarian; and risk prone; furthermore, they value diversity, imagination, intellectualism, logic, and scientific progress. Conservatives exhibit the reverse in all these domains. Moreover, the felt need for order, structure, closure, family and national security, salvation, sexual restraint, and self-control, in general, as well as the effort devoted to avoidance of change, novelty, unpredictability, ambiguity, and complexity, is a well-established characteristic of conservatives. (Thornhill & Fincher, 2007).
In their paper, Thornhill & Fincher presents an evolutionary hypothesis for explaining the liberalism/conservatism ideologies: both originate from innate adaptation to attachement, parametrized by early childhood experiences. In another but related domain Lakoff (2002) argued that liberals and conservatives differs in their methaphors: both view the nation or the State as a child, but they hold different perspectives on how to raise her: the Strict Father model (conservatives) or the Nurturant Parent model (liberals); see an extensive description here). The first one

posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules [where] [s]elf-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

while in the second:

Love, empathy, and nurturance are primary, and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both in their family and in their community.
In the October issue of Nature Neuroscience, a new research paper by Amodio et al. study the "neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism". The study is more modest than the title suggests. Subject were submitted to the same test, a Go/No Go task (click when you see a "W" don't click when it's a "M"). The experimenters then trained the subjects to be used to the Go stimuli; on a few occasions, they were presented with the No Go stimuli. Since they got used to the Go stimuli, the presentation of a No Go creates a cognitive conflict: balancing the fast/automatic/ vs. the slow/deliberative processing. You have to inhibit an habit in order to focus on the goal when the habit goes in the wrong direction. The idea was to study the correlation between political values and conflict monitoring. The latter is partly mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area widely studied in neuroeconomics and decision neuroscience (see this post). EEG recording indicated that liberals' neural response to conflict were stronger when response inhibition was required. Hence liberalism is associated to a greater sensibility to response conflict, while conservatism is associated with a greater persistence in the habitual pattern. These results, say the authors, are

consistent with the view that political orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation
Thus valuing tradition vs. novelty, security vs. novelty might have sensorimotor counterpart, or symptoms. Of course, it does not mean that the neural basis of conservatism is identified, or the "liberal area", etc, but this study suggest how micro-tasks may help to elucidate, as the authors say in the closing sentence, "how abstract, seemingly ineffable constructs, such as ideology, are reflected in the human brain."

What this study--together with other data on conservatives and liberal--might justify is the following hypothesis: what if conservatives and liberals are natural kinds? That is, "homeostatic property clusters", (see Boyd 1991, 1999), categories of "things" formed by nature (like water, mammals, etc.), not by definition? (like supralunar objects, non-cat, grue emerald, etc.) Things that share surface properties (political beliefs and behavior) whose co-occurence can be explained by underlying mechanims (neural processing of conflict monitoring)? Maybe our evolution, as social animals, required the interplay of tradition-oriented and novelty-oriented individuals, risk-prone and risk-averse agents. But why, in the first place, evolution did not select one type over another? Here is another completely armchair hypothesis: in order to distribute, in the social body, the signal detection problem.

What kind of errors would you rather do: a false positive (you identify a signal but it's only noise) or a false negative (you think it's noise but it's a signal)? A miss or a false alarm? That is the kind of problems modeled by signal detection theory (SDT): since there is always some noise and you try to detect signal, you cannot know in advance, under radical uncertainty, what kind of policy you should stick to (risk-averse or risk-prone. "Signal" and "noise" are generic information-theoretic terms that may be related to any situation where an agent tries to find if a stimuli is present:

Is is rather ironic that signal detection theorists employ the term liberal* and conservative* (the "*" means that I am talking of SDT, not politics) to refer to different biases or criterions in signal detection. A liberal* bias is more likely to set off a positive response ( increasing the probability of false positive), whereas a conservative* bias is more likely to set off a negative response (increasing the probability of false negative). The big problem in life is that in certain domains conservatism* pay, while in others it's liberalism* who does (see Proust 2006): when identifying danger, a false negative is more expensive (better safe than sorry) whereas in looking for food a false positive can be more expensive better (better satiated than exhausted). So a robust criterion is not adaptive; but how to adjust the criterion properly? If you are an individual agent, you must altern between liberal* and conservative* criterion based on your knowledge. But if you are part of a group, liberal* and conservative* biases may be distributed: certains individuals might be more liberals* (let's send them to stand and keep watch) and other more conservatives* (let's send them foraging). Collectively, it could be a good solution (if it is enforced by norms of cooperation) to perpetual uncertainty and danger. So if our species evolved with a distribution of signal detection criterions, then we should have evolved different cognitive styles and personality traits that deal differently with uncertainty: those who favor habits, traditions, security, and the others. If liberal* and conservative* criterions are applied to other domains such as family (an institution that existed before the State), you may end up with the Strict Father model and the Nurturant Parent model; when these models are applied to political decision-making, you may end up with liberals/conservatives (no "*"). That would give a new meaning to the idea that we are, by nature, political animals.

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