Neuroscience reveals brain differences between Republicans and Democrats

November 1, 2012 by Jeff Stensland

With the U.S. presidential election just days away, new research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate may depend more on our biological make-up than a careful analysis of issues.

That's because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. The USC study, which analyzed of 24 USC students, builds on existing research in the emerging field of political neuroscience.

"The differences are significant and real," said lead researcher Roger D. Newman-Norlund, an assistant professor of exercise science in the Arnold School of Public Health and the director of USC's new Brain Simulation Laboratory.

The study focused on the , a network of linked to a host of social and emotional abilities. After declaring their , The subjects were given questionnaires designed to gauge their attitudes on a range of select political issues. Next, they were given "resting state" MRIs which made it possible to analyze the strength of connections within the mirror neuron system in both the left and right hemispheres of their brains; specifically the , supramarginal gyrus and angular gyrus.

The results found more in areas believed to be linked with broad in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country). In some ways the study confirms a stereotype about members of the two parties—Democrats tend to be more global and Republicans more America-centric—but it actually runs counter to other recent research indicating Democrats enjoyed a virtual lock on caring for others.

"The results were a little surprising," Newman-Norlund said. "This shows the picture is more complicated. One possible explanation for our results is that process social connectedness in a fudamentally different manner."

While political neuroscience and study is still largely in its infancy, the implications for future races could be big as politicians and campaign strategists learn how to exploit brain differences to make more effective, biologically targeted appeals to voters.

The research also suggests that maintaining an open mind about political issues may be easier said than done. In fact, bridging partisan divides and acting contrary to ideological preferences likely requires going against deeply ingrained biological tendencies. And while there is evidence that mirror neuron connections can change over time, it's not something that happens overnight, Newman-Norlund said.

"The (brain) differences could be a result of genetics, experiences, or a combination of both," he said. "It takes a lot of effort to see the other side and we're not going to wake up one day and all start getting along."

Understanding the differences and their origins, however, is a step in the right direction, he said.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

'Busybody' protein may get on your nerves, but that's a good thing

October 17, 2017
Sensory neurons regulate how we recognize pain, touch, and the movement and position of our own bodies, but the field of neuroscience is just beginning to unravel this circuitry. Now, new research from the Salk Institute ...

Team finds training exercise that boosts brain power

October 17, 2017
One of the two brain-training methods most scientists use in research is significantly better in improving memory and attention, Johns Hopkins University researchers found. It also results in more significant changes in brain ...

Worms learn to smell danger

October 17, 2017
Worms can learn. And the ways they learn and respond to danger could lead scientists to new treatments for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

Mechanism explains how seizures may lead to memory loss

October 16, 2017
Although it's been clear that seizures are linked to memory loss and other cognitive deficits in patients with Alzheimer's disease, how this happens has been puzzling. In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine, ...

Study shows people find well-being more so from special places than from mementoes

October 16, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at the University of Surrey has found that people experience a feeling of well-being when thinking about or visiting a place that holds special meaning to them. They also found that ...

New study describes how dopamine tells you it isn't worth the wait

October 16, 2017
How do we know if it was worth the wait in line to get a meal at the new restaurant in town? To do this our brain must be able to signal how good the meal tastes and associate this feeling with the restaurant. This is done ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2012
So liberals are community oriented and conservatives are tribalists. It all goes back to the fact that conservatives blindly worship authority and detest "личные вопросы."
not rated yet Nov 02, 2012
Surveys on voting preferences outside the USA have found that just 3% of Australians, 6% of UK and 10% of Canadians would vote for Mitt Romney. How can the data gathered be general in the light of such skewed results outside the USA???

Note that in the Australian survey, only 10% of declared conservative voters supported Romney i.e. the vast majority would have voted Obama. Note also that we get very full coverage of the US election including all of the debates and policy stands, so Australians are quite well informed...
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2012
I'd love to see this cross-analysed with redistricting. Gerrymandering abuse may have worked in favor of recording shifts like this, benefiting the study of health psychology immensely.
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2012
Progressives generally act out of hate and fear and often times are bullies. If they don't get their way they will seek revenge (aka Obama in his recent speech).

Conservatives on the other hand generally act out of love and caring. IE. Romenys comment about Obama's wanting to seek revenge was to ask people to vote out of love of their country.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
I doubt such a survey would give a useful answer in countries with more than two parties.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
"Progressives generally act out of hate and fear and often times are bullies."

Methinks someone is projecting :-)
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2012
Birger, consider the following, Big Bird punches out Romney at a half time show, Obama famous Revenge quote a few days ago, occupy wall street crowd (supported by Obama). Romney saying vote for love of country, parks cleaner after tea party rallies, and on and on the examples flow.

I'm not projecting, just reporting the facts. If you vote for Obama, you are voting for fear and hate. If you vote for Romney, you are voting for love of country.
3.5 / 5 (13) Nov 06, 2012
So liberals are community oriented and conservatives are tribalists. It all goes back to the fact that conservatives blindly worship authority and detest "личные вопросы."
Sorry I dont speak wookie. What is the difference between tribe and community? Or for that matter, tribe and sect, or tribe and sports team, or tribe and gang?

The tribal dynamic is pervasive. Humans cant help but be tribalists as they have been SELECTED for it over the course of a million years of endemic warfare.

Those tribes with greater internal cohesion coupled with more effective external animosity, could be expected to prevail over others in conflict.

-And those institutions which could extend this dynamic over ever larger groups, as in the surviving religions or those nationalist entities of recent memory that we all know and love, would enjoy similar success.
3.4 / 5 (13) Nov 06, 2012
If you vote for Obama, you are voting for fear and hate. If you vote for Romney, you are voting for love of country.
No I am sure this is exactly backwards. Can you recognize the tribal dynamic at work here? YOU identify with the republican tribe and so describe it in warm, fuzzy tribal terms, while describing the enemy as full of negative and dangerous things. Further, you think these opinions of yours are facts. Just like you think the bible is full of facts, where in fact it has been demonstrated to be full of LIES.

Can you appreciate how our genetic makeup predisposes us to reconfigure reality in such significant ways? You are the poster child of the tribalist. You are a credit to your nation which, according to you, is under god. Your tribal god that is.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.