The Ghost World of Liberals and Conservatives - December 2011



The conservative attraction to the upper classes


by Charles Brack


What are the neural correlates of class warfare?


Most of the time, the rich exert so much Darwinian pressure on a population, they constitute the main evolutionary force. Take the recent case of the United States, where the offshoring of Information Technology jobs has broken the back of the compensation model for American software programmers, which was a long-standing target of major US corporations.


The one-percenters have accomplished this magic with the help of a sympathetic government and the widespread corporate practice of illegal justification for guest worker visas. Most IT guest worker visas are acquired without proper legal justification.


Further, the offshoring of IT jobs has circumvented US labor laws, as many Indian programmers work unpaid overtime to maintain productivity that suffers greatly with the offshore labor model. An offshore worker is about 10-80% as productive as a corresponding onshore worker, due primarily to the reduced information flow of the offshore-onshore task distribution model, and the rapid turnover of offshore labor.


To add insult to injury, the one-percenters are now interfering with labor law legislation in China and India, making sure they slow down wage growth in their hard-fought Asian playground. Not only are they ruining the reproductive capacity and reshaping the genetics of the working class in America, they are targeting working class genetics all over the planet. This new game is global class warfare.


Offshoring and the illegal justification for guest worker visas are just two of the tactics used by the one-percenters in increasing their share of the economic pie. Another tactic, equally as nefarious, is the colluded and corrupted executive compensation process, as documented by Jensen et al. (2004). Jensen notes:


"although individual [executive compensation] committee members are generally competent and well motivated, the governance system itself is corrupted and tilted in the direction of management in a way that will almost inevitably lead to excesses in executive pay levels."


So how do the one-percenters get away with it? Why does their gift for collusion and the corrupting of both corporate and political organizations meet with such little resistance among the rest of us?


It's not because of the liberals. The liberals hate the rich, and even if they are rich themselves, they still hate them. The liberals almost universally ascribe some level of social parasitism to the rich, and while normally herbivorous, would quickly take up meat-eating if it meant dispatching them.


Surprisingly, the moderates have comparably negative opinions about the rich, with the large majority also indicating some degree of social parasitism to their behavior. This shared opinion would seem to provide an overwhelming political force against the one-percenters, except for one segment of the political spectrum that forever stands in the way.


Sympathy for the Devils


That segment, of course, is the conservatives. Even the conservatives in the lower classes have sympathy for the one-percenters. Remarkably, this level of sympathy is comparable to how the one-percenters feel about themselves. (See How Conservatives and Liberals Organize Into Social Groups). This is one of the interesting enigmas in evolution, since a simple extrapolation of selfish gene theory would preclude such a seemingly inexplicable social alliance between the upper and lower classes.


Fortunately for the one-percenters, the source of this assistance comes by virtue of the way the brain works. It seems that certain regions in the brain are facilitative in organizing societies around class systems and social inequality.


So why is the conservative brain so facilitative of social inequality? Three closely related theories that seek to explain the high opinion that conservatives have for the one-percenters are: the "attraction to dominance" theory, the "self-misidentification" or "I'm dominant too" theory, and the "attraction to social inequality" theory.


Let's start with the "attraction to dominance" theory, which is closely related to the authoritarian tendencies of conservatives originally proposed by Else Frenkel-Brunswik in 1948.


The "attraction to dominance" theory


The "attraction to dominance" theory simply states that people can actually experience the sensation of reward in their perception of the rich and powerful, something akin to the sensation induced by food, sex, or psychoactive drugs.


The "attraction to dominance" theory has evidence to back it up. In particular, an experiment by Jordan Grafman, In Politics on the Brain: an fMRI Investigation (2006), scanned the brains of 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans while they performed a version of the Implicit Association Test containing the faces and names of 36 well-known politicians.


Grafman asked his subjects to rank well-known politicians (within their own party), on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the most powerful member, and 7 indicating a minor party role. While performing fMRI, Grafman found that the "pecking order" rankings, or the perceived "powerfulness" of politicians, correlated with activity in the left anterior cingulate cortex (BA 32) and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (BA 9). Even more remarkably, rankings of "powerfulness" were negatively correlated with activity in an almost mirror-like fashion in the right hemisphere: the right anterior cingulate cortex (BA 32) and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (BA 10).


The curious nature of this topographically inverse relationship between the left and right hemispheres in the expression of dominance levels was addressed by Grafman:


"Politician pecking order (1 = high power, 7 = low power) was positively correlated with left cingulate activation and negatively correlated with right cingulate activation. One possible interpretation of this finding is that highly powerful politicians may be considered less approachable than less powerful politicians, consistent with the hemispheric asymmetry and valence model of emotions [Davidson et al. 2000; Demaree et al., 2005] and the dominance/submission lateralization model".


This could be interpreted as a sort of hemispheric switch between attraction to dominance (via the left hemisphere) and aversion to it (right hemisphere). To bolster this interpretation, Gazzaniga (2005) also noted that the left hemisphere views dominant individuals more favorably than the right.


Further, Chiao et al. (2009) found that social dominance orientation (the preference for social hierarchy over egalitarianism) correlated to activation of the left anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortices. Note that Kanai et al. (2011) found that gray matter volume in the left insula of conservatives was greater than that of liberals. Chiao also noted an inverse relationship between empathic orientation and preference for social hierarchy:


"we show that individuals who prefer social hierarchy across social groups and individuals (e.g., politico-economic conservatism) show less neuroaffective sensitivity to other people’s pain."


Those attracted to social dominance are less empathetic. Empathic response is predominately organized in the right hemisphere (see Decety and Jackson, 2004, for a meta-analysis). This is certainly evidence for the hemisphericity theory of political orientation.


Among humans, the social value of dominance behavior is seen in the rapid increase in support for social dominance during successful periods of warfare. Across species, dominant animals are more responsible for defense and territorial acquisition, and can provide many benefits to those lower in the social hierarchy. Thus, an attraction to dominance has been under considerable Darwinian pressure.


The "self-misidentification" or "I'm dominant too" theory


You don't have to be the Koch brothers to vote like the Koch brothers. You just need your brain to fool you into believing that you are the Koch brothers. This comes courtesy of what appears to be a remarkable neural mechanism that keeps one highly placed in their own internal social hierarchy, sort of like assuming the identify of those in high dominance positions, even if you really belong at the bottom. This is the "self-misidentification" theory, or "I'm dominant too".


The "self-misidentification" theory is a bit more complicated than the "attraction to dominance" theory, and involves those brain networks that maintain our social-identity and position within the social hierarchy. Given a level of wealth, this self-positioning can vary wildly from person to person.


This phenomenon appears to share some of the same neural networks that both modulate schizophrenia and manage our autobiographical self-identity. It is interesting that one of the main characteristics of schizophrenics is the tendency to lose their autobiographical self in favor of a much more powerful, often deific self. This new self is almost always in a position of higher social power.


The neural networks activated with schizophrenia were hypothesized by Brack (2008) to overlap those activated during the "born again" religious experience. The Christian "born again" experience seems to be adaptive on the process of losing one's autobiographical self and substituting it with a "nearer-to-god" self, something akin to schizophrenic episodes, although much less functionally debilitating (see The Lost Self).


But what does schizophrenia have to do with conservatives? Schizophrenia has been related to elevated rates of conservatism and/or religiosity in a number of studies (Frumkin, 1977; Kroll, 1989; Rudalevièiene, 2008; Spencer, 1975; Peters, 1999). It is interesting to note that the most frequent schizophrenic religious delusion for females is that of being a saint, and for schizophrenic males, being God (Rudalevièiene, 2008).


Since paranoid schizophrenia is the most common disorder linked to hyperreligiosity, and paranoid schizophrenia has been more closely associated with the relatively higher activation of the left hemisphere, this implies that the left hemisphere tends to construct a higher self-ranking within our social hierarchy than does the right hemisphere. But is there evidence for this?


This was seen in a composite face experiment by Keenan (2000). Keenan ingeniously put together a 50-50 blend of famous people morphed together with one's own face (the self-famous morph), and a 50-50 blend of their co-workers' faces morphed together with famous people (the familiar-famous morph).


People tended to perceive the self-famous facial morph as not being famous, while they tended to view the familiar-famous morph as famous. But what made this interesting was that this varied by the hand the subject responded with. The left hand (right hemisphere) was more likely to consider the self-famous morph as not being famous, while the right hand (left hemisphere) was more likely to consider the self-famous morph as being famous.


Therefore, the conservatives, which we have proposed to be more under the influence of their left hemispheres, may be ranking themselves socially higher than is warranted by their real wealth. In contrast, the liberals may be doing the opposite.


The "attraction to social inequality" theory


The "attraction to social inequality" theory is a close cousin of the two aforementioned theories, except for one significant difference: it proposes that some people experience the phenomenon of reward when exposed to stimuli associated with people moving into lower social positions.


The study of the neurobiology of social inequality is relatively new, and has applications to both behavioral economics and game theory. Many of these studies indicate that the brain generally is averse to social inequality, which certainly has applications to the attitudes of conservatives and liberals.


One of the earlier experiments demonstrating the brain's reaction to social inequality was The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game by Sanfey et al. (2003). The Ultimatum game is interesting because pits the desire for money against the desire to be treated fairly. A subject is given an amount of money, with which he must offer another subject, the offeree, a portion. For both parties to be paid, the offeree must accept the offer. If the offeree rejects the offer, neither party gets paid.


The cheap Machiguengas: In this cross cultural graph of Ultimatum Game offers, the Machiguenga tribe of the Amazon basin in Peru placed last when it came to fairness. Conversely, the cooperative Lamelara (whale hunting) culture in Indonesia would give you more money than they took for themselves, making an interesting case for a group selection hypothesis.


Offers of less than a 50% share of the money are frequently rejected even though the offeree has an incentive to accept the offer, since rejection results in no money at all (offers of 20% are rejected at a rate of 50%). Ultimatum game studies are notoriously frugal, so large monetary amounts have yet to be studied, which would probably increase the acceptance rate of unfair offers.


Sanfey found that five areas of the brain were activated by the perception of an unfair offer: the left and right anterior cingulate cortex; the left and right anterior insula; and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).


You selfish son-of-a-bitch! Unfairness in monetary rewards activates the ACC, Insula, and Right DLPFC


In particular, the region of the anterior insula activated was the same region that is activated during the emotional states of anger and disgust. Sanfey noted the the right anterior insula was specialized for the rejection of unfair offers. This was confirmed later by Takagishi et al. (2009). Interestingly, while the right DLPFC was strongly activated in the perception of unfair offers, Sanfey noted that its activation during the acceptance of unfair offers was greater than the insula. However, this would be contradicted later in two different experiments by Sanfey and Knoch.


Sanfey reports very little about the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), except that its activation in the presence of unfair offers may be associated with the cognitive conflict involved in the acceptance of unfair offers. As we have previously discussed (see The Colin Firth Experiment), the ACC is one of the political hot spots in the brain, and its activation is more closely associated with liberalism (Kanai, 2011; Amodio, 2007).


While Sanfey's interpretation that the right DLPFC was more likely to facilitate the acceptance of unfair offers than the right anterior insula, Sanfey performed another experiment (2005) using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) on the right DLPFC and noted that it increased the probability that unfair offers would be accepted.


Knock out the right DLPFC, and the negative reaction to being treated unfairly is diminished. Further implicating the right DLPFC as a center of inequality monitoring, Knoch et al. (2006) performed rTMS on the left and right DLPFCs and noted that only rTMS on the right DLPFC increased the acceptance rate of unfair offers, while there was no impact on the left.


The rTMS evidence was more conclusive than Sanfey's original experiment, since it involved the actual disabling of functionality of the DLPFC, while Sanfey could only guess at the underlying cognitive significance of the fMRI activations. Therefore, the current evidence indicates that the right DLPFC is active in negative affect associated with unfair treatment, and possibly modulated by greater social considerations of selfish behavior.


The human race on trial


But does the right DLPFC subvert personal self-interest in the presence of unfairness? This brings us to two interesting experiments with applications to political behavior. The first was by Spitzer et al. (2007), involving the neural correlates of social norm compliance. Spitzer was seeking to isolate the neurological impact of societal controls over selfish behavior.


Spitzer's experiment first allowed for unpunished selfish behavior, where the subject (A) was allowed to distribute money between himself and another subject (B), with no possibility of punishment from B for acting selfishly. In the second case, B could punish A by taking away his entire share, so A had to consider B's potential reaction to A's selfishness. Let the games begin.


For the unpunishable condition, A's sharing was substantially reduced, with about one-half the A's giving the poor B's less than 5% of the money. In no case did an A gave an equal share to B in the unpunishable condition (see graph below).

Summing up the human race on one graph: The top line represents the number of monetary units shared when punishment could be levied on a player for being selfish. The bottom line represents the amount shared when no punishment could be enforced. Interestingly, those with elevated scores on the Machiavellian scale were the most influenced by punishment.


When B could take away A's money for being selfish, then A's rate of sharing was approximately 60-40. But what was A's brain doing in the punishment condition? Consistent with the results from Sanfey, the right DLPFC and right insula were more active, therefore mirroring the experience of being personally treated unfairly. However, the right orbitolateral prefrontal cortex (OFC) was also more active. The OFC has been linked to behavioral planning associated with reward and punishment alternatives.


On the left side of the brain, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) was also activated. The VLPFC is more closely associated with pure emotional regulation in risk-fear-reward scenarios, and much less associated with social processing than the OFC and DLPFC. In addition, Spitzer noted an elevation in activity in the left superior temporal gyrus, which is involved in short term memory and semantic comprehension.


The Machiavellian brain


Interestingly, Spitzer computed a Machiavellian index for each subject, roughly equivalent to an index of selfishness. What was particularly interesting was that those with high Machiavellian scores were more influenced by punishment, that is, they tended to give little in the nonpunishable condition, and became substantially more fair when faced with punishment. The Machiavellians were the most financially successful subjects in this experiment.


Spitzer noted two areas of brain activity closely correlated with Machiavellism: the left anterior orbitofrontal cortex, or left OFC, (r=0.71) and the right insula (r=0.64). The left OFC is heavily involved in reward outcome monitoring, and the right insula, which is heavily involved in interoception, implying that at least one of the brain's "selfishness circuits" combines reward outcome evaluation with circuits involved in monitoring internal body states.


The 3-tier neural model of fairness monitoring


In another interesting experiment in 2008, Tabibnia et al. found that fairness in the Ultimatum game activated the same regions that are closely associated with the hedonic experience of reward: the left ventral striatum, left and right ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), right orbitofrontal cortex, left and right amygdala, and the left midbrain substantia nigra. In other words, being treated fairly is a rewarding experience, particularly in the left hemisphere.


However, Tabibnia also found an elevation in activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), just below the right DLPFC in the reduction of negative affect associated with the acceptance of unfair offers. The results of Tabibnia, Sanfey, and Knoch implied a sort of three-tier neural network of behavioral modulation to unfairness: a default negative affect to being treated unfairly by the anterior insula; a down-regulation of that negative affect by the right VLPFC (this presumably works to maximize personal reward seeking by overcoming the innate insular aversion to unfairness); and, another layer of unfairness aversion in the right DLPFC that conflicts with the right VLPFC when presented with stimuli that triggers the need to punish unfairness in larger social contexts.

The neural correlates of guilt: the right orbitofrontal cortex is preferentially activated by feelings of guilt
(Wagner, 2011)


The right hemisphere, associated with enhanced empathetic responsiveness, was also looking more like the source of inequality aversion in the brain, while the left hemisphere was more likely to express the hedonic reward associated with personally being treated fairly. But this hedonic experience also extended into the good feeling associated with punishing cheaters and watching misfortune in people that are envied.


The left hemisphere and social punishment


In 2006, Singer et al. noted that the an elevation in activity of the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens and OFC when observing unfair people receiving painful stimulation. Interestingly, these activations occurred in the left hemisphere, and only among males. The political significance of this finding might extend to the "conservative left brain" hypothesis, in that conservatives (and in particular males) tend to favor harsher punishments for many categories of criminal behavior.


Another study by Takahashi et al. (2009) also found left-hemisphere activations of the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens and OFC in the perception of schadenfreude (i.e., the misfortune of envied persons). Thus, the punishment of unfair players and the observation of envied persons undergoing hardship had closely overlapping neural networks, with activation occurring mainly in the left hemisphere.


However, the theory that certain people are attracted to social inequality currently does not have any direct evidence to support it, and can only be inferred. Further, this theory implies a greater influence of the left hemisphere in this attraction, although this remains to be tested.




Besides the neural correlates of the attraction to the upper classes, there are genetic implications. The attraction to dominance seems to be impacting the frequencies of certain genes, among them, those involved in both melanin and dopamine physiology. This can be seen in the genetic studies of Indian castes.


The Bamshad study (2001) of the relationship between genetics and caste is particularly interesting, as it noted a correlation with Indian caste rank and European genetics. Using mtDNA and Y-chromosome samples from 265 males from South India, Bamshad noted, for most mtDNA haplogroups, the distance between European genetics decreased as one moved from lower to higher castes.

While the mtDNA evidence still showed a closer connection to Asian genetics than European for all castes, the Y-chromosome biallelic polymorphism evidence was striking, indicating a closer connection to European genetics than Asian. Further, this genetic closeness increased as one moved from the lower to higher castes.


Lighter skin color is indeed one of the primary phenotypic differences in the upper classes. Indeed, the word Varna, a collective term naming the four Indian castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) means color, although this interpretation is under some dispute.


Skin color is one of the more common cross-cultural mechanisms explicitly used in defining social class, as has occurred, at various times, in Japan, Northern Africa, Southern Africa, India, Central America, and South America (Cicchetti, 2006). In these diverse social classification systems, lighter skin color is associated with higher class.


Onepercentophilia is not only a cognitive trait driven mainly from the left hemisphere, it also drives certain genes associated with both skin color and cognition into the gene pool, and comprises one of the major evolutionary forces in human population genetics. Without onepercentophilia, the one-percenters might actually have to behave themselves.


Charles Brack, December 2011



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