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The Neurobiology of Political Belief

The Neurobiology of Political Belief

The long road to truly understanding what causes our political beliefs.

The Neurobiology of Political Belief

Friday, November 10, 2017 - 13:30

Alistair Jennings, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- What are your political beliefs? And did you know they’re affecting your behavior? Take language as an example, Republicans and Democrats tend to use different kinds of words. Dedicated researchers went through 923,758 tweets to figure that out, and they found -- amongst other things -- that Republicans reference religion more, Democrats swear more, and Democrats use more unique pronouns, whilst Republicans use more group identity pronouns.

But it’s crazy to think our complex, highly personal political ideologies could be down to some of our most basic shared instincts … right?

[video of maggots] That was disgusting. I know, I had to edit it into the video. But how did you respond to that? Some of us find it more disgusting than others -- and you can measure that by measuring how clammy our skin gets -- literally whether we break into a cold sweat.

The sweatier you were, the more disgusted you were, and the more disgusted you were the more conservative you probably are. In fact, one study claims to be able to tell your political ideology just through your MRI brain response to one disgusting image. Although you may not be actually consciously aware how your brain is responding.

The more conservative we are, the more we respond to negative emotional stimuli -- and in some cases to just emotional stimuli in general. But, above all, conservatives respond more to threat. So, if we’re thinking differently, does that mean our brains are different too? Amazingly, there is some evidence to suggest that.  That, right wingers and left wingers have different sized brain regions.

Conservatives tend to have larger right-hand side amygdala’s than liberals. The amygdala isn’t there to process political information, the amygdala’s job is to trigger fear and to process fearful memories. And in fact, even though conservatives have a larger right-hand side amygdala, it’s only more active when they’re processing…you guessed it…threats.

So, what might be at the root of the liberal ideology? There’s less work on this, but it has been found liberals tend to be better at changing their behaviour, when the situation demands it. And the brain region responsible for that is correspondingly larger.  

This region is called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, but it’s not just involved with behavior change, it also represses emotion to aid rational cognition. But, there is no evidence to suggest that liberals are the logic-driven Mr. Spocks compared to the firebrand Dr. McCoys of the conservative world, no matter how neat a hypothesis it may seem.

Really, we are only just starting to understand what causes our political beliefs, and this is just work from neuroscience. In psychology, our personalities and our moralities correlate with our political beliefs. And, there’s the fascinating prospect of a genetics of politics -- it has been repeatedly shown that people who share the same genes share the same political opinion, but we still don’t know which genes are responsible or why. And yes, it is super creepy to think that we inherit our ideology like our eye color.

But, we should never forget that our experiences, our environments, and our upbringings all have a huge effect on our political opinions -- as well, of course, as our rational thought -- but they’re all modulating our in-built biological tendencies.

I hope that neuroscience will tell us a lot about why we vote the way that we do, but we should always remember, that just because our brains are predisposed a certain way, it doesn’t control our vote. In fact, understanding our predispositions gives us more power to change our behavior if we want.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Alistair Jennings headshot, lab.

Ali Jennings has his PhD in neuroscience from University College London.