Are Your Political Beliefs Hardwired?

Brain scans suggest Democrats and Republicans actually are different biologically. Welcome to the world of political neuroscience.

Can a brain be Republican or Democrat?
Can a brain be Republican or Democrat? Photo courtesy of National Institute of Mental Health

A vote in tomorrow’s presidential election could be viewed one of two ways.

It’s either the culmination of months of weighing the arguments on countless issues and making a choice based on a commingling of knowledge and personal principle.

Or you voted Republican or Democratic because, to paraphrase accidental pundit Lady Gaga, you were born that way.

Okay, in the spirit of punditry, the latter is a bit of an oversimplification, but it does reflect the thinking of an emerging field called political neuroscience. Its focus has been on using brain scans to see if people of different political persuasions are different all the way done to their genes.

Or put more bluntly, do their brains work differently?

Right brain, left brain

The latest research came out last week, a study at the University of South Carolina that concluded that the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans aren’t hard-wired the same.

Specifically, the scientists found more neural activity in areas of the brain believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country).

This was in line with what previous studies have suggested, that people who say they’re Democrats tend to take a more global view on issues while those who call themselves Republicans tend to see things through more of an American filter.

But the findings also ran counter to previous research suggesting Democrats are, by biological nature, more empathetic souls than Republicans. Not so, according to the South Carolina study; it’s just that Republicans are more likely to focus their empathy on family members or people they know.

That’s your amygdala talking

If case you missed it, a study that stirred up much debate last year–done at University College in London–likewise zeroed in on apparent links between political beliefs and brain biology. It found that research subjects who considered themselves conservative tended to have larger amygdala, the section of the brain in the temporal lobes that plays a major role in the processing of emotions.

Self-defined liberals, meanwhile, generally had a larger volume of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain associated with coping with uncertainty and handling conflicting information.

One of the study’s authors, Ryota Kanai, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The scientists found nothing to indicate that political orientation is encoded in the brain, or that brain structure alone can shape the way you vote. But this kind of research, he noted, suggests political beliefs may not develop solely from social experience, that they also could have biological roots.

I think, therefore I scan

Of course, not everyone is impressed with this line of inquiry. Plenty of critics deride the increasing value given to brain scans as scientific evidence. Steven Poole, writing recently on the New Statesman website, referred to it as “neurobollocks.” He argued:

“The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions.”

And you can guess how this kind of research plays out in the political arena–from liberals claiming it shows they are, by biological definition, rational thinkers who embrace science and are open to outsiders and new ideas, to conservatives saying it reinforces their belief that their principles are deep and heartfelt and that they really are born patriots.

Or consider Chris Mooney, a writer who’s been tilling this ground for a while. Generally, he makes the case, as he did in a piece for The Atlantic earlier this year, that it’s important to understand that our brain wiring plays a role in why we can seem “impervious to facts, logic, and reason” from the other side. But then his book on the subject came out with a title that didn’t exactly genuflect to scientific impartiality: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality.

Can’t we all just get along?

Okay, so let’s assume that there is a connection between biology and belief. You can bet political consultants will be all over this, looking for ways to refine messages and ads so they tap right into the brains of their party faithful.

Andrea Kuszewski, a researcher who has written about political neuroscience, would rather put a positive spin on what it could mean for politics. She says this kind of knowledge could help open up communication, or at least ease hostility between the country’s two major political parties.

“Each side is going to have to recognize that not everyone thinks like them, processes information like them, or values the same types of things,” she wrote last week. “With the state our country is in right now, I don’t think we have any choice but to cowboy up and do whatever needs to be done in order to reach some common ground.”

But Roger Newman-Norlund, author of the South Carolina study mentioned above, believes that while having people of opposing parties understand why they don’t think alike is a good start, he’s not expecting a kumbaya moment any time soon.

“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.”

Political nature

Here’s other recent research into the psychology and politics:

  • Just don’t shake their baby’s hand: According to a new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientific evidence supports what every politician knows — people like and trust you more if you shake their hand.
  • Why didn’t someone tell the campaigns about this?: A study at the University of Miami came to the conclusion that negative ads are most effective if they’re used in moderation. If they air too often, at least according to the research, they can bring a backlash.
  • Text me maybe: Ten percent of people who donated to the presidential campaigns this year did so on their cell phones. Analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project also found that also found that Democrats were more likely to contribute to President Obama’s campaign either online or through a cellphone, while supporters of Republican Mitt Romney tended to donate through traditional mail, by phone or in person.
  • Right face: Using a computer program called FaceGen, UCLA researchers concluded that Republican congresswomen look more “feminine” than their Democratic counterparts.
  • The height stuff: In case you didn’t realize it, the taller presidential candidate has won 58 percent of the time. Mitt Romney is 6’2, Barack Obama is 6’1.

Video bonus:When was the last time your toured your brain? Here’s a chance to get inside your head.

Video bonus bonus: And here are 10 things the brain does that it won’t help you understand.

More from

Beauty of the Brain

The Allure of Brain Scans

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.