On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).
The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.
There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).
For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.
Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.
On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.
Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.
Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible—from Neuropolitics.org:
“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”
I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.
Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.
In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):
“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”
The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).
Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:
“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”
I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.
A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.
The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.
It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.
If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).
The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.
If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.
As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).
I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:
“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”
The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.
It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.