EEG Goes to Washington

As President Bush faces increasing criticism for his handling of the war with Iraq, the jingoistic battle cry of neoconservatives has been “Stay the Course.” Well it turns out that the impulse to persevere in the face of conflicting information may be a fundamental cognitive disposition of conservatives.

A new study in Nature Neuroscience asked subjects to rate their political orientation and then tested their performance in a Go/No-Go task. This task involves repeated responses to standard stimuli, but occasionally the stimulus changes and subjects are supposed to inhibit their response.

One important finding from the study is that political orientation predicted accuracy in this response-inhibition task, with liberals outperforming conservatives. In all fairness, the authors note that “Although a liberal orientation was associated with better performance on the response inhibition task examined here, conservatives would presumably perform better on tasks in which a more fixed response style is optimal.” Talk about a back-handed compliment!

In addition to measuring the behavioral performance of the participants, the experimenters also measured the Event-Related Potentials associated with stimulus presentation (To learn more about ERPs, check out the Method of the Month). When subjects see the No-Go stimulus, a negative potential is observed that is thought to represent conflict between the prepotent response and the attempt to inhibit it. Remarkably, the size of this Error Related Negativity (ERN) was more strongly correlated with political orientation than behavioral performance. Even when the experimenters controlled for accuracy, the size of the ERN was still correlated with political orientation. Thus, liberals seem more sensitive to cognitive conflict.

Although the study is exciting, there are a few limitations. First, it’s hard to really know what cognitive processes the ERN magnitude corresponds to. Second, even though the paper localizes the signal to the anterior cingulate cortex, such localizations of ERPs are notoriously unreliable. Lastly, the paper is so brief that the authors don’t really describe their entire methodology. If subjects were asked to report political preference before engaging in the Go/No-Go task, it’s possible that the questionnaire primed their subsequent performance.

Nonetheless, the authors found a creative way of approaching an age-old question: What grounds political orientation? This paper brings us a step closer toward the answer.

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