Political Ideologies – “Conservative” vs. “Liberal” Brains: The Difference According to Neuroscience

The Founding Fathers Warned About Political Parties

The Founding Fathers were decidedly wary of political parties and the critical threat they posed to a free republic, explicitly cautioning against them on numerous occasions.

In his presidential farewell address in 1796, George Washington delivered this unheeded warning in vivid detail:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

He emphasized the “interest and duty of a wise people” to “discourage and restrain” political parties, on account of their “common and continual mischiefs.”

His words are quite prescient, indeed:

“It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

His Vice President, John Adams, lamented in concurrence, decrying such polarization “to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution”:

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”

James Madison, who saw the division of mankind into opposing factions as inevitable and therefore must be contained by a rigorous set of checks and balances, also famously gave a similar warning against the establishment of political parties in his monumental Federalist No. 10, dated Thursday, November 22, 1787:

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

“The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” 

The Founders viewed political parties as “factions” that will always act in their own selfish interests over that of the public good. The authors of the Constitution did not factor in political parties to play any formal role in the new government, and there is no mention of them in the Constitution.

Does Neuroscience Play a Role in Determining Political Ideology?

Despite these early pronounced admonitions, two opposing forces emerged in the United States, beginning with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson the Democratic Republicans, continuing today with the Republican and Democratic parties. The two parties dominate the political scene, forming a deep partisan divide.

But what does this divide say about their supporters? Why do some of us identify as “conservatives”, and others as “liberals” or “progressives”? According to some neuroscientists, the answer lies partially in the makeup of our brains.

What are the brain differences?

In their search to unlock the mystery surrounding the political brain, researchers are discovering basic structural differences between conservatives and liberals. While it is generally difficult to make a direct link between brain differences and complex behaviors in social or political contexts, these findings give scientists some hints as to how biology may inspire political identity.

The neuroscientists posed that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty. A 2011 study by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai‘s group at University College London, published in Current Biology, found a correlation between differences in political views and differences in brain structures in a convenience sample of university students on campus. The researchers performed MRI scans on the brains of 90 volunteer students who had indicated their political orientation on a five-point scale ranging from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’.

First, let’s take a look at the liberal brain. Studies have found that, on average, the brains of liberals have greater volume in a region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This area has been linked to several functions, including conflict detection, which enables us to regulate our behavior by identifying discrepancies between instinctual, habit-driven impulses and our actual intentions. So whether you’re swerving to dodge a deer that’s abruptly run onto the road, or halting before eating that one rotten grape from the fruit bowl, you can thank your ACC for its conflict detection capabilities.

Beyond its greater size, the ACC of the liberal brain also fires more frequently while detecting these differences between instinct and intention. In a political context, this may enable liberals to approach policy issues with greater sensitivity to when their habitual tendencies are ill suited for addressing the issue at hand.

eqbrain_optical_stim_enThe conservative brain, on the other hand, has greater volume in a region called the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobes which is implicated in emotional memory and fear-based learning. In one study, researchers found that when conservatives hear shocking noise stimuli, such as a blast of white noise, they exhibit more fearful instinctual reactions as measured by blink response, an indicator of amygdala activity. This behavior is coined as “amygdala hijack”, illustrated in the image on the right. These findings have led some to speculate that larger and more sensitive amygdalae in conservatives may cause them to be more driven by fear and emotional rewards.

For example, conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals. Similarly, conservatives are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. In addition, scientist found clusters in which gray matter volume was significantly associated with conservativism in the left insula and the right entorhinal cortex. There is evidence that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust, the feeling of which the insula is involved in.

In another study, researchers investigated the emotional differences between the two groups and found that when faced with risky decision-making, the amygdalae of Republicans fire at a greater rate than those of Democrats. This suggests that Republicans might be relatively more influenced by emotions in their decision-making process. What’s more, a study found that conservatives were aroused to a greater extent than liberals when shown disturbing images, such as those depicting infested wounds. Simply put, it appears that the conservative brain is more sensitive to stimuli that carry emotional weight.

On the other hand, more ‘liberal’ students tended to have a larger volume of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a structure of the brain associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information. It is consistent with previous research suggesting that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.

The authors concluded:

“Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.”

In an interview with LiveScience, Ryota Kanai said, “It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions”, and that, “more work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.” Kanai and colleagues added that it is necessary to conduct a longitudinal study to determine whether the changes in brain structure that were observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.

Functional Differences

A study by scientists at New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found differences in how self-described liberal and conservative research participants responded to changes in patterns. Participants were asked to tap a keyboard when the letter “M” appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a “W.” The letter “M” appeared four times more frequently than “W,” conditioning participants to press the keyboard on almost every trial. Liberal participants made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw the rare “W,” indicating to the researchers that these participants were better able to accept changes or conflicts in established patterns.

The participants were also wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in their anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency and a more appropriate response. Liberals were significantly more likely than conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts during the experiment, and this correlated with their greater accuracy in the test.

The lead author of the study, David Amodio, warned against concluding that a particular political orientation is superior. “The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information could be a good thing depending on the situation,” he said.

In an fMRI study published in Social Neuroscience, three different patterns of brain activation were found to correlate with individualism, conservatism, and radicalism. In general, fMRI responses in several portions of the brain have been linked to viewing of the faces of well-known politicians. But some believe that determining political affiliation from fMRI data is overreaching.

If my political affiliation is hard-wired, can I still switch it?

Well, in short, of course you can switch affiliations. However, people rarely do so, and it does appear that there are some neural obstacles to crossing the aisle. When it comes to politics, people tend to have pretty strong opinions, and aren’t always so receptive to conflicting ideologies.

In one study conducted before the 2004 presidential election, Republican and Democratic participants were asked to judge statements about candidates John Kerry (Democrat) and George W. Bush (Republican). Using neuroimaging techniques, researchers found that certain brain regions activated more than usual while participants viewed information that contradicted their political preferences. The regions firing were those responsible for processing pain, negative emotion, and error detection, suggesting that partisan individuals experienced genuine distress when confronted with opposing ideologies.

Later, participants were given the opportunity to reflect upon the conflicting information, rationalizing and justifying their own points of view. As they did so, their brain scans showed increased activity in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is integral to reward and value processing—the pleasant opportunity to justify one’s own political perspective could be observed at a neural level.

So, conflicting ideologies cause distress, but at least justifying our own beliefs solves the problem, right? Well, this might provide some emotional relief, but it also obstructs our openness to new ideas. These findings highlight some of the neural mechanisms underlying political stubbornness, explaining why many individuals tend to be stuck in their ways when it comes to politics.

In fact, this is especially true for those who are most politically involved, whether frequenting political discussions or actually running for office. Research shows that individuals who are more engaged in politics exhibit greater firing in the amygdala and ventral striatum while viewing statements consistent with their partisan ties. The amygdala is linked to emotional importance, while the ventral striatum is linked to reward value. Thus, political fanatics seem to find heightened intrinsic satisfaction to ideologies with which they agree.

Political Circles

These findings suggest that as we trudge deeper into the political world, we become increasingly tied to our respective political parties. Scientists believe this may build a feedback loop that fuels polarization in the political world, motivating us to selectively seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Even if we attempt to break from this self-perpetuating cycle, research also suggests underlying neural mechanisms that impede our capacity to empathize with members of the political out-group. It’s as if we are programmed in a way that is less than helpful for seeing alternative points of view.

When George Washington and other Founders warned against the dangers of political parties, they probably didn’t realize the full nature of our uphill battle. Political affiliation is often chalked up to cultural factors such as family upbringing and geographical location, but research suggests that biology is also at play, predisposing us to adopt certain political ideologies, and also preventing us from letting them go. So the next time you find yourself absorbed in political debate, remember, changing someone’s mind may be just as difficult as changing their brain. At the same time, being mindful of our political biases might ultimately help us to bypass them and more rationally form our own opinions.

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