The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 11 No. 4 • July 2008

Libertarian, Like Me: The Search for the Libertarian Brain

By Sandy Shaw

To change the world into a more libertarian one, it would be helpful to understand how the libertarian brain works as compared to the nonlibertarian brain. This knowledge might lead to methods (such as targeted designer foods and dietary supplements) that nudge the human brain in a more libertarian direction. Marketing such products is a separate problem, but it might be at least partially solved if they made people feel good about themselves and/or improved their cognitive or emotional function.

It is good news, therefore, that there have been several studies published recently that provide insight into the libertarian brain and how people with that kind of brain function in various types of societies. Hopefully, this will lead to a molecular pathways chart to the creation or maintenance of a libertarian brain.

A Model for the Evolution of Libertarian Traits

Tolerance and Nonaltruism

The most remarkable study (The coevolution of parochial altruism and war, by Choi and Bowles) was published in the 26 October 2007 Science. The conclusion these researchers reached, through simulations using a genetic evolution model, was that war drives the coevolution of altruism and hostility to outsiders. The model simulated the evolution of tolerance and altruism (see paper for details) by assuming, for simplicity, that there were two alleles, one representing either tolerance (T) or nontolerance (P, for parochial) and the other representing altruistic behavior (A) or nonaltruistic behavior (N).

The commentary on the paper (“The sharp end of altruism”), published in the same issue of Science, set the scene very nicely in the first sentence, “Which would you prefer, a society of selfish but tolerant freetraders, or a warrior society in which people help one another but are hostile to outsiders?”

In this study, libertarians (not called that in the study) were clearly represented by the TN (tolerant, nonaltruistic) genotype. As the researchers explain, there were two types of selection at work in the model. “Within-group selection favors tolerant nonaltruists and tends to eliminate parochial altruists [intolerant to outsiders, altruist to the in-group] as well as tolerant altruists and parochial nonaltruists. By contrast, the second process, selective collective extinction resulting from intergroup conflict, may favor parochial altruists despite the fact that they risk death even in victorious battles.” (For example, the authors report that in early human societies there was a “. . . markedly higher reproductive success of predominantly parochial altruist groups when interacting with groups with fewer parochial altruists . . .” Under nonhostile conditions, however, tolerant nonaltruists do best because they are able to receive a mutual benefit from tolerant members of outsider groups and also benefit from altruistic contributions to the in-group.

The bottom line was that high levels of parochial altruism promoted frequent conflicts, the victors being those groups with many parochial altruists while, when nonaltruistic tolerant individuals were most prevalent, hostilities were rare. As the authors note, their study explained how Homo sapiens could have become a warlike yet altruistic species, but there is no evidence that the hypothetical alleles used in the simulation actually exist. They carefully note that, “Thus, we have not shown that a warlike genetic predisposition exists, only that should one exist, it might have coevolved with altruism and warfare in the way that we have described.” As the commentary author points out, “Evidence that intergroup violence killed a nontrivial proportion of our ancestors has fueled interest in war as a force for robust group selection.” The commentary sums up by noting that the evolutionary process (as developed in the simulations) showed “war as both the engine of the coevolutionary process and its legacy.”

Using the terminology developed in the model, political liberals would probably mostly fit in the bully category (N–nonaltruistic, P–nontolerant), while many conservatives would fit the P–nontolerant, A–altruistic category. I call political liberals nonaltruistic because, despite their frequent calls for money to be spent on others, it is other people’s money rather than their own that they propose be used for this purpose. “Volunteering” other people’s money to charitable causes is hardly altruistic. In fact, the commentary describes a study in which 15 small-scale societies played a donation game; the “average generosity correlated with the amount of market exchange and economic cooperation typical in the society.”

Resistance to Social Defeat

A second study [Krishnan et al. Cell 131:391-404 (2007)] reports finding molecular adaptations in the brain of mice that lead to resistance to social defeat. This could be important in humans, where similar resiliency has been reported under adverse conditions, by supporting independence of social subordination. I do not propose that libertarians are more resistant to social defeat than nonlibertarians, as I have no data other than my knowledge of libertarian friends and acquaintances, but I would like to see more libertarians who have such resistance in an inherently nonlibertarian, hostile society.

Briefly, the authors found that in an inbred population of mice, where animals were exposed to ten consecutive incidents of social defeat (being put into the cage of a resident stranger), 40–50% of the defeated mice (the unsusceptible group) did not display behavioral effects of defeat (e.g., depression, social avoidance, anhedonia, weight loss), while the others (the susceptible mice) did. As the authors explained, their main goal was to identify genetic differences between the susceptible and unsusceptible mice.

One of their findings was that, after chronic (but not a single) defeat, there was augmented firing of dopaminergic neurons in a particular brain area [the ventral tegmental area (VTA)] in the susceptible mice, whereas in the unsusceptible mice, there was significant upregulation of genes whose proteins would be expected to reduce such neuronal excitation. This finding might suggest (though not discussed by the authors, who were focused on the increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, induced in that brain area in the susceptible mice) that dopamine (an important signal in the reward areas of the brain) was depleted by the chronic defeat. Dopamine levels can be increased in the brain by its amino acid precursors tyrosine or phenylalanine. (In fact, studies by the Army on tyrosine supplements have shown it to be a potent reliever of stress in soldiers under battlefield conditions. Phenylalanine has also been shown to have antidepressant effects in humans.) Hence, the “crash” in dopamine levels from exposure to chronic defeat can be, I believe, modulated by taking appropriate supplements that increase brain dopamine levels.

Compared to the unsusceptible mice, the susceptible mice exhibited a deficit in reward-seeking activity, such as sucrose ingestion, and also showed an increased reward from cocaine (which, among other things, stimulates increased dopamine release in the brain until dopamine supplies are depleted, after which the cocaine “crash” takes place). Hence, chronic social defeat may be a factor leading people to become hooked on cocaine, helping to explain why cocaine users tend to be losers.

The authors propose that there is an increase in dopamine release by neurons in the VTA because “in the context of social defeat, [increased dopamine release] may promote alertness during a potentially harmful situation.” They conclude by noting that resilient humans “display a striking ability to preserve optimism in the face of adverse situations, a characteristic that may reflect reward substrates that are either especially plastic or insensitive to change.”

Response to Inequality

There have also been recent scientific studies published on the negative response (reduced willingness to cooperate) to inequality of reward for equal (perceived) effort in experiments in small groups of humans, chimps, and various monkeys.1,2 As was suggested in one such paper on monkeys,1 when there is a collective effort (say, a group hunt for meat), then a genetic predisposition to carefully examine the distribution of the results of the cooperative effort and to have a negative response to inequality of the distribution (all other things, such as effort expended, being equal) would be an unsurprising evolutionary result. However, what is not discussed in the papers I’ve seen is an explanation of how you can extrapolate such rules from the small groups in which they support cooperation into groups of millions of individuals, where you don’t know what the result of the “group hunt” has produced or how it has been distributed, and where effort expended by individual members is likewise unknown. I am inclined to think that the negative response to inequality, supported by genes that evolved in small groups and helped promote cooperation, has degenerated into an inappropriate pathological response in large human groups that actually hinders cooperation by fostering widespread negative responses to ubiquitous unequal outcomes of individual effort, luck, and natural ability.

In the monkey study,1 animals were studied for the effect of unequal rewards on their willingness to cooperate in activities requiring working together. The monkeys showed a negative reaction (less willingness to cooperate) to receiving a less-favored reward (a piece of cucumber rather than a grape) than their partner. The authors reported that effort expended for a reward had a major effect on the willingness to cooperate, as “by far the lowest level of performance in the entire study occurred in subjects required to expend a large effort while at the same time seeing their partner receive a better reward.” The authors conclude that “These effects are as expected if the inequity response evolved in the context of cooperative survival strategies.” Unlike humans, interestingly, the monkeys did not have a negative response to getting a better reward than their partner.

In a human study,2 researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to detect blood oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) responses in the ventral striatum to differences between rewards in subject pairs performing the same work under the same conditions for a money reward. The ventral striatum is an area of the brain engaged in the prediction and registration of reward via dopaminergic projections. As the authors suggest, understanding of how humans respond to unequal rewards has far-reaching economic implications, including the “design of optimal taxation and redistribution schemes” and “the optimal provision of incentives in firms.”

The authors tested the hypothesis that activity in the ventral striatum and the midbrain-prefrontal dopaminergic projections would increase with higher relative payments (e.g., a higher BOLD signal in subjects receiving more than their partner), and, in fact, that was what was observed. Moreover, the subjects reacted with a higher BOLD signal when large amounts of money were unequally paid, regardless of which of the subjects received more.

People are weird animals, and it is important to understand the basis for values that stem from neurobiological mechanisms evolved under conditions that may not reflect current conditions.

Punishment as a Form of Altruism

There have been a number of recent papers on the fact that humans are often willing to punish violators of social norms and defectors in cooperative activities even when they impose costs upon themselves. I think libertarians are less likely to engage in this type of activity, but it is widespread. One paper that reported on this phenomenon3 notes that “Costly punishment seems to be an altruistic act, given that individuals who contribute [to joint enterprises] but do not punish are better off than the punishers.”

They examined the punishment question by looking at a model of situations where individuals can decide whether to take part in a joint enterprise. The participants include defectors (aka free riders, who do not contribute but benefit from the contributions of others), cooperators (who contribute but do not punish), and punishers (who contribute, but also punish the defectors). However, in this model, the authors indicate that “in the absence of the option to abstain from the joint enterprise, punishers are often unable to invade, and the population is dominated by defectors. This means that if participation in the joint enterprise is voluntary, cooperation-enforcing behavior emerges. If participation is obligatory, then the defectors [free riders] are more likely to win.” Hopefully, this result has captured your attention, as it did mine!

One of the most widely studied models of punishment behavior is the ultimatum game, in which a player has the option of keeping an amount of money or offering to a partner player any portion of the money; the partner can then accept or reject the offer. If the partner rejects the offer, both individuals get nothing. Unequal distributions (usually less than a 60:40 split) are considered “unfair,” and most such offers are rejected in Western societies (though not in all societies). Rejecting an offer of money because it is “unfair” is costly to the individual the offer is made to and is a type of punishment behavior. It seems dumb because some money is better than no money, but that is the way most people react to an “unfair” offer. Incidentally, another recent paper4 estimated, using an ultimatum game played for money by pairs of identical twins, that greater than 40% of the variation in subjects’ rejection behavior is explained by additive genetic effects.

Predicting Political Elections from Rapid Exposures to Candidates’ Faces

I finish this edition of “The Search for the Libertarian Brain” by reporting a mind-boggling new paper on decision-making in elections.5

Researchers showed participants (120 Princeton University undergraduates, who were paid $5) faces of candidates for gubernatorial elections. (If any participant recognized a face, that datum was not included.) They were asked to make a rapid decision on which of two individuals (the winner and runner-up) was more competent on the basis of their faces. Predictions were as accurate after a 100-ms exposure to the faces as after 250 ms and even after unlimited exposure. The researchers compared competence judgments collected before the election of 2006 and found that they predicted 68.6% of the outcome of the gubernatorial races and 72.4% of the Senate races! The results were independent of the incumbency status of the candidates.


  1. van Wolkenten et al. Inequity responses of monkeys modified by effort. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(47):18854-9 (2007).
  2. Fliessbach et al. Social comparison affects reward-related brain activity in the human striatum. Science 318:1305-8 (2007).
  3. Hauert et al. Via freedom to coercion: the emergence of costly punishment. Science 316:1905-7 (2007).
  4. Wallace et al. Heritability of ultimatum game responder behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(40):15631-4 (2007).
  5. Ballew and Todorov. Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(46):17948-53 (2007).

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