Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 2 – Or, Understanding Your Political Opposites (If You’re Interested in That . . . )

This is the second of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the first post is linked here.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (Penguin, 2017) is a long but rewarding read. The first half of the book – 300 pages – delves into the particulars of brain regions and their development, cerebral enzymes, and genetics. Rewards come to the reader who continues to the last half of the book. Sapolsky is insightful, and his colloquial writing style humors, entertains, and instructs.

Sapolsky’s purpose is to explain human behavior – why, how, and what.

jalbm.behave.1As promised in my previous post, this post focuses on a juicy topic: the biology of political loyalties and tendencies. I love Sapolsky’s sub-heading (hardcover, p. 444) in Chapter 12 – “Hierarchy, Obedience, and Resistance” – that introduces the juicy section: “OH, WHY NOT TAKE THIS ONE ON? POLITICS AND POLITICAL ORIENTATIONS.”

Here We Go . . .

Sapolsky asks if there are “psychological, affective, cognitive, and visceral ways” in which left-leaners and right-leaners tend to differ. He answers by saying there are “fascinating findings” which he summarizes under the categories of intelligence, intellectual style, moral cognition, and psychological differences.

Even so, he posits an important disclaimer: rather than categories of stereotypes or essentialisms, what stands out in each group of partisans are internal consistencies which, he claims, are evident in both political and apolitical realms and have bits of biology undergirding them.

In the category of intelligence, he references a well-known study from the 1950s – one, however, not always verified by other similar studies – that suggested a link between lower intelligence and conservative ideology. (I told you this would be juicy.) Better supported, Sapolsky writes, is a link between lower intelligence and a specific sub-type of conservatism: right-wing authoritarianism. This link is a concern today just as much as it was in post-WW II Europe, when researchers and political scientists sifted through the wreckage caused by so many submitting to Hitler’s authoritarian ways. Right-wing authoritarianism, Sapolsky says, offers simple answers (to complex societal problems), ideal for people with poor abstract reasoning skills.

As for intellectual style, Sapolsky brings us to the dancefloor to help explain psychological studies that illustrate differences between conservatives and liberals. See the guy tripping over his feet while trying to dance? Partisans, asked to give a snap judgment of the lousy dancer, agree that the guy’s clumsy. But given more time to ponder the situation . . . liberals more readily entertain possible reasons for his lousy dancing (perhaps a physical ailment, or a father who disdained dancing) whereas conservatives tend to stick with their first instinct. Sapolsky says that “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Sapolsky hastens to say that right-leaners sticking with their gut doesn’t mean that they are incapable of going deep intellectually. Far from it: both liberals and conservatives are equally capable of presenting the other’s perspective, showing intellectual dexterity. Liberals, though, show greater comparative motivation toward entertaining situational explanations – the descriptor “bleeding heart” fits. Many conservatives, during the George W. Bush presidency, became comfortable with the term “compassionate conservatism” – in part, an attempt to address the criticism of cold-heartedness.

An interesting aside: Donald Trump, before becoming president, spoke often of going with his “gut feel.” He’s continued to speak in similar fashion as president. By this marker, Trump is a card-carrying conservative.

Differences between partisans in the category of moral cognition are revealed by their typical response to this question: Is it permissible to disobey a law? Conservatives, with their affinity for law and order, answer “No” because disobedience undermines cherished authority. Liberals, on the other hand, answer “Yes, if it’s a bad law” – authority subsumed to their affinity for fairness for all. Another question: Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? Conservatives, with their affinity for sacredness – “Never.” Liberals will allow for it, if they can be convinced that the reasons and circumstances undergirding the action merit it.

As for the category of psychological affect, Sapolsky says that liberals tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity than are conservatives, who tend to be more comfortable with structure and hierarchy. Are our best days ahead of or behind us? Generally more comfortable with novelty, liberals anticipate, with needed reforms, a brighter future ahead. Conservatives, generally more comfortable with that which is familiar, speak of the good old days that should be returned to – “Make America Great Again.”

What is the role of government? Liberals: to provide social services and education for its people. Conservatives: to protect its people, with a strong military leading the way. Apropos, Sapolsky sites a study that reports Republicans having three times more dreams involving loss of personal power than do Democrats. Conservatives, especially those with authoritarian sympathies, are more prone to “threat perception” – fears and anxieties about potential dangers – than are their political counterparts. Of the two, which group reports being happier? Despite their hopes for a better future, liberals, who are more discomfited by inequality, report increasing unhappiness as inequality rises. Conservatives, for their part, self-report no decline in happiness in the midst of increasing inequality.

This is All Quite Interesting . . . But, Is There Any Biology Behind These Differences?? 

In the first part of the book, Sapolsky details the workings of the insula cortex, a subpart of the amygdala. An important player in the brain’s “fight or flight” response mechanism, the insula detects threats and alerts the rest of the body. As an example, the insula (in most of us) activates when we see a cockroach. It also activates when someone from a rival tribe – a “Them,” not an “Us” – is detected in our field of vision or thought.

“Social conservatives,” Sapolsky writes, “tend toward lower thresholds for disgust than liberals.” Images depicting gay marriage and abortion, for example, activate the insulas of conservatives. But show images depicting petulant plutocrats and arrant aristocrats to liberals, and their insula-triggered disgust factor goes off the chart. “Political orientation about social issues,” Sapolsky comments, “reflects sensitivity to visceral disgust and strategies for coping with such disgust.” Biologically, liberals and conservatives (more so) rely upon disgust as a metric for determining moral behavior. Disgust, however, as Sapolsky warns, shifts generationally.

Sapolsky finishes up this section on political orientations and biology with a pithy summary: “If it makes you puke, you must rebuke.”

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

Sapolsky gives hyper-partisans reasons to step back, take a deep breath, and re-learn one of the main lessons that evolution teaches: diversity makes us stronger and helps us survive. Behavioral differences – including those displayed in political preferences – harken back at least to some biological wiring.

Nobody wants to have to sit at the Thanksgiving table while the prototypical crazy uncle goes on a political rant. Have Sapolsky’s Behave at the ready and ask that he give it a look-over before he comes back to the next family dinner.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).


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