Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

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.

22 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

  1. Schizophrenic conservatives, depressed addicted liberals, and psychopathic libertarians. I bet I could offend about everyone.

    I don’t know why people take themselves so seriously. It’s just data. Besides, these kinds of correlations are extremely broad and general. The fact of the matter is most people of any ideology aren’t mentally ill. These tendencies only involve a small percentage of people. It doesn’t say anything about all people of any ideology.

    Plus, it isn’t as if this is genetic determinism or something. We are products of diverse factors, many of which are environmental. Research has shown that ideological tendencies and mental illnesses can be caused or contributed to by various things. Even parasites have been proven capable of this. But also such things as living in a culturally diverse community increases rates of social liberalism or greater urbanization increases rates of depression.

    All that this shows us are some hints at what is or might be going on that makes people think, perceive, and act differently. It’s fascinating, plain and simple. There is nothing to get all excited and defensive about. But it is important to understand why we are the way we are.

    • There is that. But I think this even makes many liberals uncomfortable.

      People are so used to the stupidity of pundits and trolls who are constantly equating ideological labels with mental illness. Of course, such people are idiotic assholes. But it doesn’t mean the actual correlated data isn’t valid.

      There is a dark history to this as well. I forget the term for it. During the Cold War, false accusations of mental illness were associated with certain ideologies and then the advocates were attacked, slandered, and sometimes had their lives destroyed. Mental illness as a label was used as a weapon.

      Obviously, the Quora question doesn’t imply any of that. It is a perfectly neutral question. People just aren’t used to those kinds of questions being asked in a valid way.

      A person could ask an entirely different question and it would still be worthy: What is the link between liberalism and narcissism? I don’t know of any such link. But I wouldn’t attack or dismiss someone for asking it. Just look at the data and see what you find.

      Are people so thin-skinned that they can’t manage a bit of honest probing of tough issues?

      The only problem is when people start speculating based on ideological bullshit. That is what you see with racists/racialists. They’ll grab some data and run with it. But they aren’t serious about actual understanding. And they should be called out on their bullshit.

      Discernment, as always, is important. But that shouldn’t stop us from considering uncomfortable possibilities.

    • One person who answered the question on Quora claimed to be a psychologist. This is their answer:

      “This question can not possibly be asked seriously. So, am I wasting my time answering it? Maybe.
      Anyway, here goes: There is no link. Whatsoever.”

      I have no reason to doubt this person really is a psychologist. If so, he must have been educated on basic social science data. But to him, no matter what the facts show, this question simply can’t be considered.

      No evidence is offered. It’s just not possible, based on a declaration. It is forbidden. And if you ask it, you are banished from respectable company.

  2. Maybe there is a reason this doesn’t bother me personally.

    I’ve spent my entire life with various labels placed on me, from learning disabilities to depression (along with some kind of thought disorder). I’ve known that I’m not normal for as long as I can remember. Not being normal is my normal.

    Plus, I know plenty of people who have various mental illnesses: depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, etc. All of these people are nice, good people. They are fully capable of living relatively normal lives and function with families, jobs, and other everyday activities. In fact, some of the smartest and most talented people I know deal with psychiatric issues.

    Those who dismiss this question seem to hold some unresolved issues about mental illness. They apparently don’t think of mentally ill people as part of the normal spectrum of human nature. Part of the problem is that we label these people mentally ill in the first place. I don’t really care how I’m labeled, but labels do mess with people’s heads.

    There really is no ‘normal’. We adapt as best we can to various conditions in our lives. It’s just that we live in a rather dysfunctional world. Some of the people who are most well normalized by the standards of social norms are also some of the most messed up people. The people I worry about are those who obviously have psychological problems, but aren’t labeled or being treated.

    Too much psychological dysfunction gets mislabeled as politics or else as success. For example, any person who spends their life accumulating wealth and power is not normal by my book, is not socially well adjusted by any moral standard. But our society doesn’t label this as a mental illness, even when it is highly destructive to the lives of others.

  3. You take ideologies are natural dispositions and then accept that tracking something with a lose definition to self-reporting and that tracking psychological traits to self-reporting is truth. That my friend remains sloppy social science since the belief content of conservatism is highly varied, particularly once you leave the US, but even in the US it is varied. Haidt talked about libertarians skewing the calculus, while aligned with conservatives, they show up as ultra liberals on the values scale. Then take someone like me, I show up as more concerned about authority than either the norm of conservatives and am off scale for liberals, but I have no disgust response. The problem isn’t however an outlier like me, but the idea itself is conflating ideologies and dispositions, which aren’t actually the same thing.

    • No, I don’t take ideologies as natural dispositions. Rather as a range of natural potentials within humans. But those potentials are dependent on diverse factors to become specifically manifest.

      I agree that what you describe would be sloppy social science. I’m not doing social science, though. I’m just throwing out a bunch of data and pointing out some interesting patterns. I’m not arguing that they have to be meaningful, let alone speculating about what that meaning might be.

      My point is that it maybe indicates that something is going on in this data. I haven’t a clue what it might be. For certain, better data would be required to say much of anything about any of it. As you point out, the self-reporting is a major problem. There needs to be better research to grapple with that issue.

      You also have a point with what you say about conflation and all that. Like you, I don’t perfectly fit any ideological label. Still, there are patterns that can be found in the data, even considering all the messiness of it all. When I see patterns, I can’t help but point them out. Maybe it’s all noise. If you look for patterns enough, you’ll find them. But maybe there is something behind those patterns.

      I think it is worth doing better research about. Why not?

      • It is. I just want MUCH clearer definitions. I must admit though that Haidt has grown on me over time. I just don’t know that he actually found what HE thinks he found.

        • That is the opposite for me. I was initially drawn to Haidt’s views. But over time I’ve become more critical. I think his model, if improved, could be useful. It’s just that as is it fails to achieve what he claims of it. His model has too many deficiencies and blindspots. Still, that doesn’t mean he is wrong in all ways. Like with all else, I’d like to see better research.

          • My trajectory began with my parents ideological worldview—a conservatism that is moderate Midwestern, community-minded, and prosperity gospel Protestant. It then shifted to a fairly standard liberalism, although largely apolitical and mainstream-questioning, along with being filtered through emerging issues of depression and at times near-cynicism. And in recent years I guess I’ve been moving into more ‘radical’ leftist ideology, even as I don’t fully embrace radicalism as part of my identity.

            I’m not really sure what it all adds up to. It wasn’t a smooth and linear transition. I still carry traces of my past, including my parents’ conservatism. I’m eking toward something, besides death, whatever it may be. I’m attracted to your views maybe simply because of your own trajectory, your willingness to doubt and question and to challenge. We both seem to revolve around similar issues, even as we have taken different paths in that process.

  4. Correlation is not causation either, nor does it even imply it. That said, I do think there is somethings to all these correlations and I suspect I has to do with class and cultural positions more than innate brian function since class and region are better predictions of politics than biology.

    • Correlations simply make me curious. Nothing more and nothing less. A correlation isn’t a conclusion, either for or against a particular causal link. It’s just a scientific starting point, upon which to base a falsifiable hypothesis to be tested.

      I’m just some guy with a blog looking at data. I’m not a scientist. I’m not doing research. It doesn’t really matter what I think about the data. My main argument is that such lines of questioning are valid, whatever answers they may or may not lead to.

      I’m with you on your thinking that there is something to all these correlations. A single correlation is only mildly interesting. But numerous overlapping correlations begin to seem to be more than a mere curiosity.

      Assuming any of it is actually meaningful, I’d agree that it would most likely involve such things as class, culture, and region. Even in terms of biological factors that would be true. It’s mostly the poor who deal with major issues of lead toxicity, lack of healthcare, etc. And certain diseases and parasitic infections are found to a greater extent in particular geographic areas.

      One of my recent favorite examples is toxoplasmosis. When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?

      There are tons of factors like that. Most of such factors are unknown or barely researched. We don’t at present fully understand how complex factors interact to create specific psychological profiles and how that might predispose individuals to specific ideological attitudes/worldviews. But looking at the correlations is a good starting place, scientifically speaking.

      • That determinism would make most liberals highly uncomfortable. I think it is a stretch, but I have noticed that warmer weather cultures tend to have less of a work ethic because it just not as crucial.

        • My liberalism is a bit atypical. Even so, I wouldn’t think of any of this as determinism. The free will vs determinism debate has made less sense to me than even the nature vs nurture debate.

          I just see a complexity of factors that can’t be disentangled. There are tons of correlations and patterns to be found, and in specific cases we can speak of strength of causal links and of probabilities, but nothing is determined in a simplistic sense. It’s a shifting mosaic of contributing factors.

          Consider the example you just shared. There might be a correlation between warmer weather and work ethic. You wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that. But there is also a correlation between many of such cultures and other factors as well: post-colonial legacies, parasite load rates, limited healthcare, issues of poverty and inequality, etc.

          The correlation you mentioned, however, could be questioned in certain cases. Greeks live in a warmer clime than do Germans. Yet Greeks work more hours and Germans go home earlier on their work days. In fact, Greece is the hardest working country in Europe and one of the most hard working countries in the world. So, why are Greeks considered lazy and lacking work ethic?

          Most of the warmer countries that are considered lazy are also poor. Greece isn’t so poor. So maybe the real issue is poverty. And to understand why some of those countries are poor, one would have to understand history. But it is interesting to note that those warmer climes also were the location of all the early civilizations and empires. Romans lived in a warmer clime and they aren’t considered to have been lazy. Were the Egyptians lazy in building pyramids while Northern Europeans built huts?

          Still, does that disprove the correlation, even when there are exceptions? No. There is a certain logic that people tend to not work more than they have to. Many hunter-gatherers, typically in warmer regions, are known for not working long hours because they don’t need to. Obviously, survival takes more work when facing long cold winters. But the confounding factors makes one wonder how strong is that correlation, specifically in relation to those who like to make culturally and racially determinist claims.

          • The thing is I don’t see how this kind of determinism is actually that different since we know about both genetic and cultural heritability being tied to people in a region. Now that is not co-terminus with race or culture exactly, but it does eerily overlap

          • I don’t dismiss anything that is seen as overlapping. That should always be considered. I guess I just always come back to the complexity issue. There is more that we don’t know than we do.

            Why do the same factors seemingly lead to entirely different results? How did Northern and Western Europe go from being a cultural and technological backwater to the site of great empires in a short period of time? For millennia. there was absolutely no reason to ever think that most of Europe would amount to anything. It was the same people, same genetics, same clime, etc. Yet something shifted that put all those factors into a new context that led to new results.

            A purely determinist worldview has a harder time explaining that. HBDers do have their theories, that is true. But they often sound like just-so stories to me. Yet I sometimes think that HBDers make certain valid points. At least, HBDers are trying to make sense of it, however imperfectly.

  5. I’ve wondered for a long time how my conservative parents managed to raise three liberal children. It wasn’t intentional, but it makes sense when environmental conditions are considered.

    My parents grew up in conservative Indiana, my dad having grown up in small towns at that, most of his childhood and young adulthood spent in a sundown town. Both of them didn’t experience much cultural diversity as children. That is opposite of how they raised us. My brothers and I grew up in culturally and racially diverse towns, which has been shown to predispose people to social liberalism.

    On top of that, my parents brought us to liberal churches. That might have been more of a sign of the times. Like their children, they too were being influenced by changes in society, but of course those changes would have a bigger impact on my brothers and I along with our entire generation. So, their is a peer cohort effect as well.

    I might add that we grew up with a house cat. My parents didn’t grow up with cats that lived in the house. Research has shown that toxoplasmosis particularly impacts children who grew up around cats. Considering that, it would be probable that my brothers and I measure higher on neuroticism than my parents, and indeed my brothers and I do seem to deal with some of the mental health issues that are correlated with neuroticism, including both depression and anxiety.

    So, there is one example with plausible mechanisms for how environmental conditions shaped personality traits, along with increasing the probability of certain mental illnesses and ideological attitudes.

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