Politics and the Brain

A new study says that the brains of American Democrats and Republicans are wired differently, and that they use entirely different sections when making risky decisions. 

Let the debates (and jokes) commence. 

Liberals show a higher level of activity in the left insula, a portion of the brain associated with self-awareness, social cues, addiction, emotional processing, empathy, and even orgasms (insert Bill Clinton joke here). 

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to weigh risk in the right amygdala, an area of the brain that aids in survival, including reacting to violations of personal space and controlling social interaction, fear, and aggression (insert Dick Cheney joke here).

These conclusions were drawn from a study of 82 people performed by political scientists and neuroscientists at the University of Exeter and the University of California, San Diego. The study was published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Your Brain on a Two-Party Political System 

Different types of brain activity among Democrats and Republicans during risk-taking tasks underscores fundamental differences in the U.S. dual-party system. 

Republican philosophy is grounded in the basic rights granted to individuals, and thus they tend to support smaller government, fewer regulations, and more personal empowerment. Because Republican thought is centered in the part of the brain that deals with the evolutionary fight-or-flight response, it makes sense that their platform centers on issues of national defense, such as securing our borders and beefing up the military. 

Democrats, however, are often crusaders for the greater good, advocating for civil rights, fair play, and a national security strategy based on alliances. This jibes with the basic functions of the insula, where their risk assessment takes place.

Whether or not specific members of these parties stick to these ideals is a different discussion altogether. 

Calls to the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee for comment were not returned. 

Testing the Brain's Response to Risk

In a previous experiment, subjects participated in a gambling game while researchers measured their brain activity. Afterwards, scientists looked up the participants’ political party registrations using public records.

When they analyzed both sets of data, researchers came to the conclusion that Republicans and Democrats use different parts of their brains to assess risk during gambling activities. While the Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the risks they took, their motivations stemmed from different parts of the brain.

Even with a sample size on the smaller side, researchers are confident their findings can predict a person’s political leanings based solely on their brain activity.

Hardwired for Politics?

The Exeter/UCSD team claims that monitoring brain activity in the insula and amydala is the most accurate way to predict a person’s political affiliation. 

The standard in political science has been to use a person’s environment—namely which side of the fence Mother and Father sat on—but researchers claim that’s only accurate about 70 percent of the time. Monitoring brain activity, however, provides 83 percent accuracy, the researchers stated. 

“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,” Dr. Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter, said in a press release.

So What Is This Good For?

U.S. politics are serious business. In the 2012 election cycle, both parties spent more than $985 million each, according to an assessment by The New York Times

With so much at stake, the science behind politics can be used to predict voter behavior, as well as to guide campaign strategy. 

“The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science,” Schreiber said.

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