The neuroscience of politics: what your brain says about your vote

So it’s super Tuesday. For anyone reading this in the US you’ll know that this is a pretty big deal in the presidential primary season but, to humour us Brits, here is a brief overview of what it all means.

800px-2008_Wash_State_Democratic_Caucus_03Super Tuesday is the day (or days) when the greatest number of states hold their primary elections, narrowing the field of candidates vying for power in the upcoming general election. The day is thought to ‘throw candidates in at the deep end’ giving them a taste of the trials and tribulation of running a national campaign. Results from Super Tuesday (which are expected to start flooding in soon after polls close at 19:00/20:00 EST, 00:00/01:00 GMT) will give a good indication of the direction of these campaigns – creating a sink or swim moment for candidates.

With heightened political fervour gripping the nation, we at the Brain Bank want to explore the role the brain plays in the way we vote:

One major question scientists have been researching is whether it is possible to predict our political leanings (conservative vs liberal or republican vs democrat) by delving into the structure of our brains. Although this question may seem pretty far fetched, a number of studies have in fact found links between the size and activity of certain brain structures and a subjects political beliefs. Specifically, these studies reliably show that liberals tend to have a larger and more active anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) while conservatives are more likely to show an enlarged amygdala.

Now, before we delve into more detail on the functions of these brain regions and how they could be linked with conservative or liberal thinking, we need to be clear on a few points. Firstly, even though a number of studies converge on the same findings, these do not represent a large enough sample size to say that this will hold true for all individuals. We also have no way of disentangling cause and effect in these studies, so we can’t say whether your brain drives your political views or whether it is your views which shape your brain – although this would be a very interesting question to ask!

So, with this in mind lets explore what these brain regions do and how their functions may be linked to political beliefs.

7488934812_d8bee1e2b0_qThe ACC is involved in cognitive control, conflict monitoring and emotion regulation. The ACC is basically the brain’s equivalent of a focused micromanaging boss. It helps us sort through incoming information and choose which bits are relevant and which are not. It also works to regulate our emotions, keeping them in check so they don’t get in the way of logical thinking. Those with the ability to maintain low emotional arousal alongside high cognitive control may be better at handling conflict, more adaptable and have high cognitive flexibility.

But what about the amygdala?

The amygdala is heavily involved in the formation of emotional memories and a process known as fear conditioning. People with larger amygdala may be more likely to show empathy and could be swayed heavily by emotive arguments. However, heightened emotions may also lead to less logical decision making, hinging choices on emotion rather than logic.

These findings could be used to argue that liberals may be more comfortable with complexity, more flexible in their thinking and more willing to incorporate new information into their current belief system. On the other hand, conservatives could be more likely to allow their beliefs to be coloured by emotion. This may make conservatives less comfortable with change, finding that stability causes them less anxiety. Interestingly, it has been suggested that conservative thinking hinges more on the stability of previously held values (think gay marriage) while liberals are thought to be more accepting of change and more willing to shift their world views based on new evidence.

66245374_afe6d3d8d1_qThis data is certainly interesting, however it is not helpful to view this as a strict dichotomy, or indeed something which remains rigid throughout the course of an individuals life. I wrote an article a few years back discussing plasticity in the brain. We know that every experience we have is capable of altering the structure of our brains at both a cellular and network level. Therefore, it makes sense that something as nuanced as political belief would undoubtedly be shaped and modified over the course of our lives by our experiences.

We know that, at least in Britain, age (and associated experience?) is a strong predictor of political affiliation, with liberalism associated with youth and conservative ideals with advancing age. Indeed it was once said that “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains”. It has been suggested that as individuals settle down, find secure jobs and start families they crave stability, are more anxious of change and therefore more likely to vote conservative. It is possible that these changes are based on incremental alterations in brain structure, perhaps brought about by lifestyle changes.

Personally, my voting style altered when I came to university to study a scientific subject. Before university I tended to base my vote on the beliefs of my parents and peers, whereas now I try to weigh up as much evidence about the candidates as I can find before making a decision. I generally lean to the left, but could (and have) been swayed by policies on both sides. I like to think I would be an outlier in these ‘brain structure’ studies, alongside many other moderate (middle ground) voters.

It seems clear that differences do exist in the thinking style of both parties and I am inclined to believe that this may be reflected in the brain structures of strong supporters on both sides. However, there is undoubtedly room for further research into this topic, including questions such as: what defines a moderate voter? Does brain structure change with political affiliation? and does brain structure alter with age?

What are your views? we’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

To learn more visit National Geographic

Brain Games:  Life of the Brain premieres Sunday, March 6, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.

Post by: Dr Sarah Fox

4 thoughts on “The neuroscience of politics: what your brain says about your vote”

  1. I live in San Francisco. As an English child I was raised with traditional working class Leftist political values. After immigrating to Chicago I stayed left of center. Then years later I was a classic Hippie. Involved in the peace movement. Went to many of the major demonstrations of the time. I had to deal with some very tough obstinate Right Wingers in Chicago in the 60s. Since those times I have been all over the philosophical and political landscape. Now. San Francisco is the most closed minded rigid place I have ever lived. The average person believes that anyone who disagrees with them is evil and an idiot to boot. They call this style of thinking “open mindedness “. .. I await their diagnosis, although suspect I am more likely to be the subject.

  2. personal and socio-economic circumstances and events tend to shape political views and leanings, congruent with the different socio-economic stance exhibited and values held by the various political parties. Brain structure as well, of course, owing to plasticity, for the way we think is a consequence of brain structure and status. So, at this junction, it seems a correlation. Causal effects are as yet undiscovered.

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