The party in your brain

February 13, 2013, University of Exeter

A team of political scientists and neuroscientists has shown that liberals and conservatives use different parts of the brain when they make risky decisions, and these regions can be used to predict which political party a person prefers. The new study suggests that while genetics or parental influence may play a significant role, being a Republican or Democrat changes how the brain functions.

Dr. Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter, has been working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California, San Diego on research that explores the differences in the way the brain functions in American liberals and conservatives. The findings are published in the journal on 13 February.

In a prior experiment, participants had their brain activity measured as they played a simple gambling game. Dr. Schreiber and his UC San Diego collaborators were able to look up the political party registration of the participants in public records. Using this new analysis of 82 people who performed the gambling task, the academics showed that Republicans and Democrats do not differ in the risks they take. However, there were striking differences in the participants' brain activity during the risk-taking task.

Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness. Meanwhile Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body's fight-or-flight system. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different when they think about risk.

In fact, brain activity in these two regions alone can be used to predict whether a person is a Democrat or Republican with 82.9% accuracy. By comparison, the longstanding traditional model in political science, which uses the party affiliation of a person's mother and father to predict the child's affiliation, is only accurate about 69.5% of the time. And another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with only 71.6% accuracy.

The model also outperforms models based on differences in genes. Dr. Schreiber said: "Although genetics have been shown to contribute to differences in political ideology and strength of party politics, the portion of variation in political affiliation explained by activity in the amygdala and insula is significantly larger, suggesting that affiliating with a political party and engaging in a partisan environment may alter the brain, above and beyond the effect of heredity."

These results may pave the way for new research on voter behaviour, yielding better understanding of the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. According to Dr. Schreiber: "The ability to accurately predict party politics using only while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Researchers identify protein involved in cocaine addiction

January 16, 2018
Mount Sinai researchers have identified a protein produced by the immune system—granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF)—that could be responsible for the development of cocaine addiction.

Even without nudging blood pressure up, high-salt diet hobbles the brain

January 16, 2018
A high-salt diet may spell trouble for the brain—and for mental performance—even if it doesn't push blood pressure into dangerous territory, new research has found.

Neuroscientists suggest a model for how we gain volitional control of what we hold in our minds

January 16, 2018
Working memory is a sort of "mental sketchpad" that allows you to accomplish everyday tasks such as calling in your hungry family's takeout order and finding the bathroom you were just told "will be the third door on the ...

New study reveals why some people are more creative than others

January 16, 2018
Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative "geniuses" like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in ...

Brain imaging predicts language learning in deaf children

January 15, 2018
In a new international collaborative study between The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, researchers created a machine learning algorithm that uses brain scans to predict ...

Preterm babies may suffer setbacks in auditory brain development, speech

January 15, 2018
Preterm babies born early in the third trimester of pregnancy are likely to experience delays in the development of the auditory cortex, a brain region essential to hearing and understanding sound, a new study reveals. Such ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dr_talal
not rated yet Feb 14, 2013
So may be they want now to control voter behavior by some way that they can let them voite for who they want to win , amazing .
vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Feb 14, 2013
hmm, from a foreigner pov, both parties are considered conservative, how could this almost indistinguishable difference in political choice cause such effects in the brain?

Have the americans become so polarised in this that the "either with us or against us" is causing a new north and south?

Allow me to explain, over here we have a multitude of different political parties: liberals, democrats, religous democrats, religious conservatives, socialists, communists, xenofobes, greenies, elderly representatives and in all sorts of combinations.

Over time the political landscape changes and it's not uncommon for parties to gradually shift their views or dissolve in other parties, neither is it uncommon for voters to regularly change their vote to different parties, depending on how their situation at that moment in their lives is.

So, political views might not be so hardwired in the brain since we're less "fixed" unto a political view. If there's any generalistation I could make...
vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Feb 14, 2013
...it would probably be that the young and very old tend to lean over to more progressive views and the middle aged towards a more conservative view. This (mere personal observation) however doesn't correspond to the resulst in this article.

All in all it's very interesting that a 2-party system could influence a persons brainwiring and therefore probably will effect sociological and cultural behaviour as well.

Which makes me wonder if a 2 party system would cause a more polarised, black and white view on life vs the messy landscape we have here?

Time to bring this research over to Europe I say :)

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.