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September 15, 2008, 7:00 PM

Left and Right: What Neuroscience is Revealing about Political Thought

Re:Mind Roundtable
Participants: David Amodio, Joy Hirsch, John Neffinger (moderator), Alexander Todorov

The political mind—a central concern of philosophers, writers, artists, political scientists and, of course, politicians and public officials—is now attracting closer scrutiny. A growing number of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have begun to investigate what we can now call the political brain. By analyzing the brain during the very instant of political thought, researchers can attain a more precise understanding of how people come to support causes, candidates, and the balance of concerns on the political spectrum. The first in a three-part series, The Art and Science of Politics, this discussion will examine the potential for neuroscience to inform political science and political practice.

David Amodio is Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, and the director of the NYU Social Neuroscience Laboratory. Dr. Amodio's research examines the roles of emotion and motivation in the regulation of social behavior, with a special emphasis on intergroup relations. His research has illuminated the neural and psychological mechanisms that lead to prejudiced emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. In his recent work, Dr. Amodio investigated the neural underpinnings of political ideology, in an effort to understand the links between the brain, the mind, and political behavior.

Joy Hirsch is a Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Functional Neuroradiology at Columbia University. She is also Director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences (PICS), which includes an imaging center devoted to the multidisciplinary investigation of mind, brain, and behavior. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Professor Hirsch and her students and colleagues have investigated the neural mechanisms that regulate emotion, cognition, perception, and decision-making. These, along with ongoing investigations at PICS, have led to the discovery of a class of neural circuits that modulate and regulate emotional and strategic decisions. Applications of these findings to topics such as neuromarketing, neuropolitics, neurolaw, and neuroeconomics are topics of active and current interest.

John Neffinger is a partner at KNP Communications, which specializes in preparing speakers and speeches for public audiences. He previously served as Communications Director for both the Truman National Security Project and Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and has also worked as a management consultant and attorney. He is a contributor at the Huffington Post, and has appeared in national print and broadcast media discussing voter psychology, charisma and non-verbal communication.

Alexander Todorov is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. His primary research focus is on the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying social cognition. His research on the neural basis of face evaluation has been funded by the National Science Foundation. His work has appeared in multiple journals including Science, PNAS, Psychological Science, The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Jason Gold says:
I think this article is fascinating in the context of the topic of this roundtable. WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN? By Jonathan Haidt. www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
David Hecht says:
Hi Jason,

Thanks much for the link and comments. From what I read of that article, there are some great questions we might pose to the panelists on Monday and some excellent topics to continue discussing. Of particular interest to me are the questions about the role of emotions in the formulation of moral codes, and the way these morals are shared and acted upon by the community. Is it possible to escape the Humean conundrum of reason being enslaved by passion? I would love to get the panelists' perspectives on this and other such questions. I hope we see you on Monday, and please do use the question period to pick the brains of the panel!

Jonathan Libov says:
I'm surprised that Haidt refers to Westen but not Lakoff (aside from the mention of "framing") in his article. Lakoff's arguments in "The Political Mind" are very compatible, if not supportive, of Haidt's own. Lakoff argues that conservatives embody the metaphor of a strict, paternal figure that is authoritative (i.e., delivers a moral order, as opposed to encouraging self-exploration), protective (i.e., ridding the clan of competitors and enemies), and disciplinary (i.e., ensuring consequences for those who step out of line). We can map these qualities onto real policies - the Authoritarian eliminates moral choice in many social issues, the Protector smothers foreign enemies, and the Disciplinarian promotes free-market individualism (where actions are more directly rewarded and punished than in socialist arrangements).

I think that part of our reason for identifying with a political party is deriving some personal, cognitive satisfaction with our place in the world. A vote is not just a unit in the democratic process but a means for a voters to align their selves, to generate some personal satisfaction with who they believe they are (vis a vis who they voted for). One who votes for a candidate because of his belief in a free market, for example, generates some personal satisfaction in supporting a strict meritocracy. In contrast, one who votes to support social welfare generates some personal satisfaction in his willingness to share common resources.

It is problematic for Democrats that the worldview offered by conservatives, deemed a "a simple vision of good and evil" by progressives, actually carries a strong emotional appeal, an appeal that can be more readily translated to justifying one's place in the world's order. In essence, it's a shorter path to moral satisfaction and self-justification. Although Haidt makes a compelling case for how Democrats can appeal to the moral foundations that liberals typically reject, and put aside the "appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options" I can't help but feel (and I mean to say "feel", not "think") that the conservative philosophy is inherently more straightforward (and thus inherently more appealing) than the liberal philosophy.

Agree? Disagree?
Jonathan Libov says:
More relevant to this topic, perhaps: what will political neuroscience be able to tell us about these issues?
John Neffinger says:
Thanks to all for a great discussion last night.
For those of you looking for more discussion of how these issues, or rather ignorance of these issues, play out in today's partisan politics, I wrote an essay awhile back that unfortunately still applies:
jon houston says:
There's an entertaining 20-min video of Haidt speaking about many of the issues in his article at ted.com. I missed the 9/15 discussion, so please forgive if this is duplicative...


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