Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Computational and neurocognitive approaches to the political brain: key insights and future avenues for political neuroscience

Computational and neurocognitive approaches to the political brain: key insights and future avenues for political neuroscience. Leor Zmigrod and Manos Tsakiris. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, February 22 2021. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0130

Abstract: Although the study of political behaviour has been traditionally restricted to the social sciences, new advances in political neuroscience and computational cognitive science highlight that the biological sciences can offer crucial insights into the roots of ideological thought and action. Echoing the dazzling diversity of human ideologies, this theme issue seeks to reflect the multiplicity of theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding the nature of the political brain. Cutting-edge research along three thematic strands is presented, including (i) computational approaches that zoom in on fine-grained mechanisms underlying political behaviour, (ii) neurocognitive perspectives that harness neuroimaging and psychophysiological techniques to study ideological processes, and (iii) behavioural studies and policy-minded analyses of such understandings across cultures and across ideological domains. Synthesizing these findings together, the issue elucidates core questions regarding the nature of uncertainty in political cognition, the mechanisms of social influence and the cognitive structure of ideological beliefs. This offers key directions for future biologically grounded research as well as a guiding map for citizens, psychologists and policymakers traversing the uneven landscape of modern polarization, misinformation, intolerance and dogmatism.

1. Unravelling the roots of ideological behaviour

The inherent challenge—and exciting promise—of political psychology and neuroscience is the task of investigating an endlessly intricate organ (the brain) in wildly diverse social contexts (the arena of ideologies). These complexities naturally compound each other, rendering a robust psychological science of ideologies and political behaviour both challenging and crucial. The rapid spread of misinformation propagated by digital media as well as pronounced tribalistic polarization within and between national entities has provoked a global sense that our understanding of the origins of voting behaviour and ideological worldviews is dangerously insufficient. While the study of political attitudes and behaviour has been traditionally confined to the social sciences, new advances in political neuroscience and computational cognitive science highlight that the biological sciences may offer crucial insights about political and ideological behaviour. Ideological behaviour can be defined as behaviour that is epistemically dogmatic and interpersonally intolerant towards non-adherents or non-members [1]. In other words, a person thinking or behaving ‘ideologically' is rigidly adhering to a doctrine, resisting credible evidence when forming opinions, and selectively antagonistic to individuals who do not follow their ideological group or cause. Ideological behaviour can therefore occur in the realm of politics, religion, gender, race, class, social media or any other area of life where social conditions are described and accordingly actions are narrowly prescribed, resulting in ingroups and outgroups.

Yet what prompts an individual to behave ideologically? What neurocognitive processes are underway when a person evaluates socio-political information and comes to dogmatic conclusions? Why do some people fall into the traps of polarization more easily than others? These are some of the pertinent questions that a science of the political brain aims to elucidate and critically evaluate.

Until recently, social psychology was fairly limited in the methods available to study such processes rigorously. Measurement approaches were overwhelmingly based on self-report questionnaires, which are susceptible to self-knowledge and social desirability biases and which struggle to tap into unconscious processes and dispositions. Methods were restricted to laboratory-based studies, encompassing participants from limited university student populations that were frequently neither representative nor diverse. Nonetheless, over the last decade, and the past 5 years in particular, the methodology has advanced beyond recognition. Behavioural and cognitive measures can now be administered online, allowing for genuine interdisciplinarity between political research questions and cognitive methods that quantify implicit psychological processes and traits. These effective online paradigms possess the added value of increasing the accessibility and diversity of participant populations and enabling more reliable cross-cultural comparisons. Moreover, the advent of neuroscience has opened up the field towards studying the neural systems that underpin political cognition, resulting in both new insights and dangerous pitfalls [2,3]. Computational modelling approaches are also now sliding into political psychology [4], facilitating more precise calculation of cognitive parameters as well as more imaginative and complex simulations of how mental processes interact with social dynamics. Political psychology and neuroscience have therefore never been better placed to address the nuances of the political brain. At a time of substantial ideological turmoil and division, the field has also perhaps never been more pertinent.

Yet—as any good philosopher of science will observe—improved methodologies have a limited impact without inventive and thoughtful theoretical approaches that can take the field forward and build knowledge across disciplines. It is this marriage between cutting-edge methods and original, well-reasoned hypotheses that this special issue wishes to highlight. This collection of state-of-the-art research in political neuroscience, psychology and political science seeks to illustrate that a robust science of political behaviour is possible and productive, illuminating critical insights about the nature of ideology, the human brain and the societies we live in.

We have chosen to highlight three strands of research: (i) computational approaches that zoom in on fine-grained mechanisms underlying political behaviour, (ii) neurocognitive perspectives that harness neuroimaging and psychophysiological techniques to study ideological processes, and (iii) behavioural studies and policy repercussions of such understandings across cultures and across ideological domains. Evaluating these interdisciplinary approaches together unearths common themes that can inform present theory as well as guide future research efforts. These will be synthesized and summarized below. Above all, we hope that the empirical findings and theoretical implications presented in this theme issue will inspire researchers, policy makers and scholars from a range of disciplines to tackle the intricacies of studying brains in their political environments with rigour, innovation and hope.

2. Computational approaches

Computational perspectives on the nature of ideological behaviour typically take two primary forms: computational simulations of hypothetical behavioural dynamics or computational modelling of human behaviour on cognitive tasks. The papers in this collection reflect both types of computational approaches and result in striking overlaps and complementary findings.

Kashima et al. [5] explore how computational models of social influence in networks relate to ideological discourse. Using a computational model of communication, the authors identify four subtypes of potential ideological agents according to their level of cognitive bias and motivational ego-involvement when interpreting and storing information in memory. This maps on to the doctrinal and relational components of ideological thinking posited by Zmigrod [1]. The results demonstrate that certain kinds of ideological minds are more likely to polarize in particular ways and that even non-ideological agents can polarize if they communicate exclusively with polarized agents. Hence, the computational modelling employed by Kashima et al. [5] illustrates the subtle ways in which cognitive dispositions can interact with political contexts to shape the course of polarization. As they conclude, micro-psychological and macro-historical processes modulate each other in profound ways.

In another demonstration of the interaction between psychological mechanisms and interpersonal dynamics, De Dreu et al. [6] review the literature on how agents in political conflict can be modelled through a game theory framework informed by neurobiological insights. Synthesizing formal models with the literature on the neurocognitive roots of attack and defence strategies, the authors argue that the likelihood of status quo revision can be predicted by understanding a host of psychological processes, including the nature of selfish and non-selfish motivations, information-processing capacity to compute cost-benefit trade-offs and metacognitive beliefs.

Metacognition is dissected further by Rollwage & Fleming [7], who use simulation-based modelling to demonstrate that metacognitive insight modulates the adaptiveness of confirmation bias. Agents with accurate metacognitive skills can in fact benefit from biased information processing, suggesting that confirmation bias itself may only be deleterious for individuals who also have a metacognitive impairment. Metacognitive ability may thus be a useful locus for interventions aiming to reduce dogmatism and belief polarization.

To elucidate the cognitive basis of dogmatic and ideological thinking, Zmigrod et al. [8] conducted a large-scale data-driven investigation. By administering 37 cognitive tasks and 22 personality surveys, and studying the links to 16 ideological attitudes, Zmigrod and colleagues [8] examined how psychological dispositions sculpt individuals' ideological worldviews. Through computational drift-diffusion and Bayesian modelling, the researchers found that individuals' ideologies mirrored their cognitive decision-making strategies. Dogmatism was characterized by impaired evidence accumulation in perceptual decision-making tasks as well as impulsive personality, revealing that dogmatism may emerge owing to general tendencies to make impulsive decisions based on imperfectly processed evidence. Furthermore, the findings illuminate the cognitive and personality roots of political conservatism, nationalism, authoritarianism, system justification, social dominance orientation and extremist attitudes. It is therefore a key resource for scientists of ideology interested in the psychological individual differences that give rise to ideological thought and action.

The underpinnings of political behaviour are further explicated by Lau's [9] review of the literature on social categorization as latent structure learning. The paper argues that in order to understand political phenomena, scientists must adopt high-level conceptualizations of social categorization. Lau's research on how the brain probabilistically infers and tracks latent groups demonstrates that individuals' assessments of the contours of their group identities rely not only on how similar they are to the targets, but on a whole host of contextual factors. The manner in which individuals understand their ingroups and outgroups is thus more complex than previously imagined and can shed light on political polarization in various parliamentary structures—as well as its antidotes.

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