Why Poorer Countries are More Conservative - As Told by the Brain

There is no denying that people from different cultures have different attitudes towards life and the world around them. Some of these differences seem to lie between people living in the developed world and those living in the less developed nations, where people appear more liberal in the former and more conservative in the latter. An example of this phenomenon is attitudes towards homosexuality, while 32 out of the 54 African nations criminalise homosexuality, no country in Europe has a law expressly prohibiting homosexual activities. Contrasts in people’s attitudes between the developed and developing world can also be seen in other areas such as religion, premarital sex and even the modesty of female clothing. Additionally, just a century ago most, if not all, of today’s developed nations experienced a high rate of poverty. Back then, people’s mindsets were also what we would today call conservative, a prominent example of which was the prudency of people living in Victorian England.

This raises one question: what is the link between the intangible mindsets of people living within a given society and the tangible advancement, or lack thereof, in said society? In order to assess the way humans behave, the most logical place to turn to is the brain. Brain scans have shown that people who self-identify as conservatives have a larger right amygdala; this is the area of the brain responsible for processing fear. This makes sense, given that in poor nations people tend to live in more fear than in their developed counterparts. Even within a developed nation such as the United States, it has been shown that shortly after the events of September 11, there was an increase in conservative leanings with increased support for military spending. If this is the state of a wealthy nation, what would it mean for one where people live fearfully on a day-to-day basis?

There are a variety of ways in which the right amygdala, and by extension fear, would affect the way people behave in different countries. For instance, it goes without saying that citizens of conservative countries are traditional and resistant to change. A 2008 study, which catalogued the items in the dormitory rooms of university students, found that liberal-leaning students tended to own more books and travel-related items, which implied their desire for a sense of adventure in their lives. On the other hand, in conservative rooms, there were found to be more items including calendars and cleaning supplies, which were intended to maintain order in their lives. These findings suggest that liberals are more open to more novel experiences, whereas conservatives prefer more order and structure. This could explain the conservative inclination towards familiarity and hence resistance to change. Furthermore, their predisposition towards fear is potentially what makes them more risk-averse and resistant to what is not already an established norm.

Many developing countries are also known for their populations’ intolerance across lines of ethnicity, religion or otherwise. A study conducted in 2018 showed that people with more conservative viewpoints were quicker to look away when shown disgusting images - such as vomit, faeces or blood - compared to those with more liberal leanings. From an evolutionary standpoint, this knee-jerk reaction is good for human survival, as this helps to avert potentially harmful pathogens. This quick reaction could also be encouraged by their aforementioned predisposition to fear. However, separate research also suggests that this affects the way in which conservatives view others who are different from themselves, which may explain the affinity towards intolerance in many developing nations. To add to that, this may also explain the negative attitude in such countries towards mental health and people with disabilities, which people perceive as ‘deviating’ from the norm.

As far as religion goes, this itself is a factor that seems to differ between economic levels of development. In fact, there is a clear negative correlation between the GDP per capita of a country and the religiosity of its citizens according to a 2009 Gallup survey. This may also be linked to the predisposition towards fear, as religion is seen by many as a means of maintaining feelings of safety and security in the dangerous world around them.

From these findings, it can be inferred that the conservative mentality is centred around fear and viewing the world as a dangerous place. There appears to be a tendency for inhabitants of liberal nations to judge those of conservative nations for being overly repressive and restrictive, while the latter judge the former as being immoral and depraved. One could argue, however, that neither side is right or wrong, only people’s brains adapt to the context around them, particularly in the context of fear where the brain tailors itself to aid in its owner’s survival. That having been said, the developed countries of today have only relatively recently seen widespread prosperity amongst their citizens and along with it only recently adopted their liberal ideas in the mainstream. Thus, we may have to wait for many other countries to develop to gauge whether such a correlation truly exists between a society’s physical development and the mentality of its citizens. There may well be one but for now, only time will tell.


Joseph Situmorang

An Aerospace Engineering graduate with an MEng from the University of Bristol. A self-styled global citizen who has grown up living in different countries around the world with an insatiable curiosity about the world around me.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.