Theory of Mind - Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Theory of Mind
Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

One rather extraordinary talent of the human brain is imputing mental states to others, to have theory of mind (other minds), or to mindread—to understand that others have thoughts, intentions, emotion states, and so on. Compared to other animals, humans are the undisputed world champions at this remarkable skill. We are able to perform feats of mindreading acrobatics, such as “he knows that I know that she knows (something),” so easily that we take the skill for granted, with the notable exception of those suffering from autism. The inability to “read minds,” what Baron-Cohen has described as mindblindess,11 is one of the hallmarks of autism.

Theory of Mind: Differences between Women and Men

There is ample research demonstrating that women outperform men on theory of mind (ToM) tasks and that these differences are evidenced early in life. Studies have found, for example, that preschool-age girls perform better at understanding others’ false beliefs (the understanding that another person can hold an erroneous belief about something, a skill requiring ToM)12 and at understanding others’ emotions.13 Other research found that girls in grades 4—12 score higher than boys on social understanding tasks.14 Yet other research has found sex differences in secondary-school students (age twelve), with girls performing better on ToM tasks,15 and there is evidence that this difference is visible by three years of age.16 Moreover, some research suggests that the female advantage in ToM tasks may continue into adulthood.17 In sum, the evidence shows that women are typically much better at understanding the minds of others.

Theory of Mind: Differences between Liberals and Conservatives

While to date few studies directly measuring differences in this ability between liberals and conservatives have been conducted, two neuroimaging studies offer a preliminary look literally inside the political brain. One study measured gray-matter volume and found that those who self-identified as liberal exhibited greater volume in the anterior cingulate cortex while conservatives exhibited greater brain volume in the amygdala.18 The anterior cingulate cortex is a brain region considered to be an integrative hub for social interactions, implicated in both theory of mind and feeling the pain of others. The amygdala, as previously noted, is the fear center of the brain. Another study examined fMRIs of Republicans and Democrats while performing a risk-taking game. As in the previous study, researchers found that Republicans showed greater activation in the amygdala, and Democrats in the anterior cingulate insula, a brain region also activated during ToM tasks.19 The authors point out that this region of the anterior cingulate insula is adjacent to a central hub for ToM, the temporal parietal junction.20 And so mindreading differences between liberals and conservatives may ultimately be a function of differences in brain structure.