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This is your brain on politics

September 10, 2011

by Trish Hennessy

For those interested in the neuroscience behind issue framing (my current fascination), there is an interesting and ongoing debate about how to understand brain functioning differences between people who vote ‘liberal’ (progressive) or ‘conservative’.

This blog points to some of the current research and raises the question about whether MRIs reveal evidence that the brains of liberals are decidedly different than the brains of conservatives.

What brain science is helping us to better understand is the value system driving people’s political preference. The science suggests liberals’ brains are more receptive to change and ambiguity; conservatives’ brains are more receptive to stability and predictability. The blog covers a wide range of compelling issues, but this represents a brief summary.

From the blog:

“In order for a person to embrace a cause or idea, it needs to be meaningful for them. Each type of person has a different way that they assign meaning and relevance to ideas. Let’s take liberals and conservatives, since we are theorizing that they are two distinct thinking styles: liberals would be more flexible and reliant on data, proof, and analytic reasoning, and conservatives are more inflexible (prefer stability), emotion-driven, and connect themselves intimately with their ideas, making those beliefs a crucial part of their identity (we see this in more high-empathy-expressing individuals). This fits in with the whole “family values” platform of the conservative party, and also why we see more religious folks that identify as conservatives, and more skeptics, agnostics, and atheists that are liberal. Religious people are more unshakable in their belief of a higher power, and non-religious people are more open to alternate explanations, i.e., don’t rely on faith alone.

“So—for liberals to make a case for an idea or cause, they come armed with data, research studies, and experts. They are convinced of an idea if all the data checks out–basically they assign meaning and value to ideas that fit within the scientific method, because that’s their primary thinking style. Emotion doesn’t play as big of a role in validation. Not to say that liberals are unfeeling, but just more likely to set emotion aside when judging an idea initially, and factor it in later. Checks out scientifically = valuable. Liberals can get just as emotionally attached to an idea, but it’s usually not the primary trigger for acceptance of an idea.

“Conservatives would be less likely to assign value primarily using the scientific method. Remember, their thinking style leads primarily with emotion. In order for them to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy. Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.”

A few additional important points raised in the blog:

The brain is plastic: It can change.

Not everyone fits into little personality boxes: We’re complicated.

Political affiliation is a choice: We’re not automatons. People aren’t born into political parties.

People tend to join networks of people like themselves: We’re drawn to who/what we identify with.

Think group differences, not individual differences: There are extreme believers on each side but the liberal/conservative divide is most helpful when you view from a group level. It goes back to the first two points: the brain is plastic and people are complicated.

Finally, the blogger, behavioural therapist Andrea Kewzuski, offers advice on how to make good use of neuroscience findings about the brain and political preference. For those wanting to communicate with liberals or conservatives, hoping to connect, the blog suggests the challenge is threefold. Consider: “i) what idea they are trying to communicate, ii) how that other group responds best to presentation of information (what turns them on or off), and iii) how to present it to that other group in a way that is both meaningful and non-threatening.”

Neuroscience provides clues to human behaviour on all three fronts.

To read the full blog, rather than my summary of it, click here.

  1. September 10, 2011 6:24 pm

    You might find this interesting:

    The field of political psychology is enormous, but this is a reasonable introduction. The article is somewhat technical but I’d be happy to explain anything you have questions about (you can add a comment here or send me a message on facebook).

    The research in psychology overlaps with the main findings discussed in this blog – conservatives are more intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty but they have discovered other interesting things as well.

    Thanks for the post

  2. September 13, 2011 10:08 pm

    What a fascinating topic, especially for those of us in Alberta who are trying to convince our Conservative friends to vote ABC (Anything But Conservative). I’m looking forward to learning more about this very timely topic. Thanks.

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