Fear Factor?

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Cassius deliver the immortal line  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars..”

But what if our faults are “in our stars”? What if the age-old debate about how much of who we are is determined by nature, and how much by nurture, is gradually being decided, and the answer is nature? I, for one, don’t find it particularly appealing to think that the person I am was genetically determined, but there seems to be more and more evidence suggesting that who we are is less a matter of human will and reason than we may be comfortable with.

Sometimes, of course, recognition of the role of biology can be liberating. The discovery that genetics–not bad parenting or “perverse choices”–largely determines sexual orientation falls in that category. But what if it isn’t only being gay that is biologically determined? What if being a Rick Santorum is equally the result of a genetic roll of the dice?

A recent article in Psychology Today reports on a study from University College London that found self-described conservatives have larger amygdala than self-described liberals, and that the liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that helps people deal with complexity. (The results are consistent with some other recent studies; just a year ago, researchers at Harvard and UCLU reported finding a “liberal gene,” although its reported effects were limited.) The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active when a person is anxious or fearful.

In other words, people who are more likely to be anxious and fearful, and less able to deal with complexity, are most likely to be politically conservative–assuming we define “conservative” as a person opposed to social and political change. Social conservatives would fit this definition; fiscal conservatives probably wouldn’t.

In one sense, such a conclusion would be consistent with what we see around us. The hysteria that Obama’s election evoked in a significant number of people is often attributed to racism (and that certainly explains a lot of it), but it is equally likely that it wasn’t the President’s race per se, but the fact that the election of a black man was unavoidable evidence of dreaded social change. As I have noted before, many of the people who seem most irrational–who think the President is a Muslim Socialist, that gays and lesbians have a diabolical “agenda,” that all Muslims are terrorists–are clearly terrified of a world they don’t understand. In the words of social historian Stephanie Coontz, they’re nostalgic for “the way we never were.”

Of course, one study doesn’t settle the nature-nurture battle, and even if these results are replicated, they don’t answer the causation question: are some people born with a larger amygdala, or did it grow larger as a result of frightening childhood experiences or authoritarian parenting? (We Moms are never wholly in the clear…)

But it does suggest that we should have some compassion for folks like Santorum. Maybe he was born that way.

Of course, if he were to become President, my amygdala would grow.


  1. Sorry Moms, this study won’t get you off the hook. In fact, it really says nothing about nature vs. nurture. I applaud you for not letting the “implications” transcend the actual scientific data.

    Clearly, you understand the real implications, an explanation of the differences exhibited in the thoughts and views of liberals and conservatives. At best, this might suggest better ways for us to talk with each other. As usual, you did a superb job of discussing this topic.

  2. No kiddin’. When the superior, “fearless”, non hand-wringing (please!), cortex-blessed liberal/progressive school figures out how to pay for universal Cadillac government with non-universal Volkswagen productivity and funding, then I’m more inclined to believe.

    And, my guess is Mr. Farber is the Democrat I voted for, versus the corruption of the incumbent (who still got reelected). “…all Muslims are terrorists….” indeed.

    With genuine gratitude for the array of topics and toleration for all rebuttals, I believe that on some days the most “resistance to change” and lack of discerning “complexity”, is in our moderator’s stereotypical depiction of ideological opposition.

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