Caveman Politics

How evolution impacts politics.

On One Hand You’re an Authoritarian, on the Other Hand You’re Not

How you use your dominant hand may reveal some of your political attitudes.

I love visiting Chicago. Not only are there lots of entertaining things to do, but I usually go because I’m attending a very good political science conference. And my visit a couple of weeks ago was no exception. Not only did I get to see the musicals The Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet, I also served as the discussant/reviewer on a panel on the biological and evolutionary roots of political attitudes. And I’m not sure which I enjoyed more.

I’m no theater critic, so I’ll talk about one of the papers I had the privilege to read and review. Michael Grillo presented his paper with Keith Lyle on the relationship between authoritarian attitudes and consistent handedness (e.g., always using your right hand to complete everyday tasks). They suggest the relationship may be rooted in biological structures in the brain.

Authoritarianism has long been a topic of interest in political science, dating back to at least the 1950s. Talk of an “authoritarian personality” emerged as an explanation for fascism and Nazi atrocities committed during World War II.

Some research suggests authoritarian attitudes originate with rigid, punishment-oriented parents (Where would we be without our parents?). Over the years, the discussion of authoritarianism evolved to the point of identifying clusters of attitudes indicating tendencies to readily submit to authority (authoritarian submission), to be strongly attached to one’s own group and hostile to outgroups (authoritarian aggression), and to willingly conform with social norms and accept the status quo (conventionalism).

Clearly, authoritarian attitudes have great political implications regarding important issues such as support for the values of democracy (e.g., how submissive should citizens be to government authorities?) and tolerance of other groups of citizens (e.g., how much should be done to ensure equality in society?).

What does this have to do with consistent handedness? A person is “consistent handed” if s/he predominantly uses the same hand (right or left) for everyday tasks such as opening jars or combing hair. Some people are very handedly consistent, while others use their “off hand” with some regularity and are considered handedly inconsistent. (Sorry in advance. I know many of you are going to start thinking about which hand you use every time you do something for the next day or so.)

It turns out that consistent handed people tend, for example, to be less receptive of new ideas, less creative, and more anxious. On the other hand, if I dare say, inconsistent handed people tend to be more persuadable, more creative, and less anxious. To make a long story short, Lyle and Grillo argue that consistent handed people share a number of characteristics with authoritarians, and they hypothesize that consistent handedness may be a behavioral marker for authoritarianism.  

So they gave undergraduate subjects a version of Oldfield’s Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, a series of questions designed to assess subjects’ handed consistency. The set of questions asks about direction and consistency of hand use for 10 activities (combing hair, drawing, opening jars, striking a match, throwing, using a knife without a fork, using scissors, using a spoon, using a toothbrush, and writing). They also asked a 4-item series of questions that assesses authoritarianism.

What did they find? Consistent handers scored about 20 percent higher on the authoritarian scale than their inconsistent counterparts (2.3 v. 1.9 on a 0-to-4 scale). Of course, like all good political scientists (actually, Michael is a political scientist, Keith is a psychologist, but we won’t hold that against him), they also tested partisanship. They found that consistent handers were more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats (37 percent Republican, 25 percent Democratic). In all, then, they found that consistent handers tend to be more authoritarian and Republican than their inconsistent counterparts.

If you’re like me, this is a connection you would have never made in a million years. What’s going on here? Lyle and Grillo present their evidence that authoritarianism is associated with consistent handedness. Interesting, but how does this make any sense? Then they cite research that shows consistent handedness is associated with less cerebral interhemispheric interaction (i.e., a lower degree of connectivity and interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain). Therefore, following the old 8th grade logic of transitivity (where if A is related to B and B is related to C, then A is related to C), authoritarianism is associated with less interhemispheric interaction.

In my overly simplistic terms, they are saying that people with authoritarian tendencies process information more rigidly than their counterparts, hence their greater reliance on structure, conformity, and the status quo.

They present more supporting evidence noting that interhemispheric interaction is the result of the transmission of neural signals from one brain hemisphere to the other, often via a bundle of neurons called the corpus callosum that cross between the two hemispheres. Some research has found that a larger corpus callosum is associated with greater interhemispheric interaction.

Their argument is a bit complicated but very interesting. In the discussion about the effect of biology on political attitudes and behavior, Lyle and Grillo present evidence that “hard-wiring” literally is involved.

I love visiting Chicago.  

If you enjoyed this post, please share it by email or on Facebook or Twitter. To see other research I find interesting, follow me on Twitter @GreggRMurray.

For more information, see: Lyle, Keith B., and Michael C. Grillo. 2012. “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Authoritarianism: Is Consistent Handedness a Marker for Authoritarian Personality?” Paper presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, April 12-15.  

Gregg R. Murray, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

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