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The right-wing reptile brain, now with science!

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Smart v. Stupid

The right-wing reptile brain, now with science!

It turns out your crazy, conservative uncle is a very emotional guy

It turns out your crazy, right-wing uncle has a genetic reason why he shrieks like Chicken Little. Two new studies find specific differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. The most notable conclusion is that conservative brains are wired toward simple, emotional decision-making. This may explain why so many conservatives can only see two answers for any question, good or bad.

Good and bad are not facts and they are not the solution to all problems. They are value judgments, emotional in nature, different for everyone, and limited in usefulness.

But, this sort of simplistic lizard-logic is what allows conservatives employed in government to complain about the very taxes that paid their salary. It is why both Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists can lay claim to God’s backing. And it is why river folks—who will soon line up to collect federal flood relief—will still believe that the federal government is useless.

Liberals have a more nuanced understanding. And this important distinction has far-reaching consequences. Think of our current relationship with Pakistan. On the one hand, we know that at least some Pakistani officials were complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, we need Pakistan to provide truck routes into Afghanistan. Our troops can’t fight—or even eat—without this critical supply line. The conservative brain responds emotionally to the “bad” Pakistanis, and calls for cutting aid. You’ve seen it on the evening news. If we do that, our soldiers go without food, water and bullets. The war in Afghanistan gets vastly more expensive. Good or bad simply doesn’t provide an answer for all questions.

Allow me, for a moment, to conflate “conservative” with “Republican.” It’s not a big stretch. You’ve probably heard of the poll that 46% of Mississippi Republicans want to ban interracial marriage. Another 14% said maybe. This poll seems to confirm our lizard-brain hypothesis.

An Italian study offers even more evidence. People who held conservative views consistently found a mythical smaller group to be inferior to a similarly imaginary larger one. This was true even when the smaller group was described more positively. The researchers called this “illusory correlation.” They suggested that false memories about minorities tend to accumulate, leading to false reasoning about minority groups. This study may help to explain the silly idea that superiority can be determined by skin color. White supremacists are simply dummies with self-serving memories.

Other common beliefs born from the lizard-brain are:

  • Hiding a gun under your shirt is a sign of bravery, rather than an act of cowardice.
  • The only way one can be moral is to be instructed by some guy who claims he speaks for God.
  • The poor are ruining the country because, somehow, they control public policy.
  • Every attempt to perfect equal rights is a slippery slope that leads directly to sex with animals.
  • Prosperity trickles down.
  • Cooperation for the common good is “Socialism.”
  • And my favorite—uneducated people have better ideas than educated people.

These logical fallacies derive from a toggle-switch brain that can only fall in one of two directions. If it scares me, it is bad. Otherwise, it is good. Unfortunately, like a snarling raccoon backed into a corner, our conservative friends aren’t even capable of understanding their real enemy is fear. They call it “common sense.” And, of course, the problem with common sense is that every fool believes he has it.

So the guy who is afraid to go out without a gun ironically reframes his fearfulness as bravery or patriotism. He “trembles before God”—imagining a petty deity who will punish anyone who fails to suck up in specific ways. But he also relies on God to protect him and prays “God, protect us…” before every meal. His entire belief system revolves around fear.

This permanent state of fear might well explain the entire catalogue of faulty logic on the right. To move forward, we have to find solutions to address these crazy, illogical fears. Start by asking your conservative friends a few simple questions:

  • How can we help you be less afraid of change?
  • What can we do to help you believe that you won’t be left behind when change happens?
  • How can we make you feel like other Americans have got your back?
  • Other than never changing anything, how can we make you feel safe about your future?

Chances are they have no answers. But it’s time to start asking the right questions anyway.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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