Conservatives get very frustrated at Democrats not understanding how they could harbor such strange views, resulting in assertions that they must be mentally ill. However, Neuroscience has revealed there are significant brain differences, particularly the fact Democrats use more emotions when they think, so maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on them. Likewise, Republicans are more influenced by feelings of needing to stay safe.
A flurry of neuroscience studies came out around 2012 examining the differences, with only slight advances since then. A groundbreaking study in 2013 published by PLOS ONE found that when Democrats think, they show more activity in the left insula, a region associated with emotional processing as well as addiction and social and self-awareness. In contrast, Republicans show more activity in the right amygdala, a region that plays a role in the body’s fight-or-flight system, including aggression and negative reactions to violations of personal space.
Researchers found that by merely analyzing that type of brain activity, they could predict whether someone is Republican or Democrat 82.9% of the time. Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the U.K., said after he discovered this difference in processing between the two, he changed his mind about whether Republicans and Democrats have different brains.
Studies found that people of all political views became more conservative after 9/11, due to the fight-or-flight reaction surging. A staggering 38% grew more conservative in the 18 months following the attacks, as compared with only 13% who became more left-leaning. A study in 2013 in the American Journal of Political Science specifically focused on fear as a factor that drives the right’s political views.
Similarly, a study from Current Biology in 2011 found that conservative viewpoints were associated with increased right amygdala size, and left-leaning viewpoints were associated with increased gray matter volume of anterior cingulate cortex.
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Granted, having certain political views could also influence changes in your brain, not vice versa, which gets back to the old chicken and the egg argument. A study that just came out in July at the National Academy of Sciences found there has still been no conclusive determination here yet. That study also found that when stimulated with information meant to cause anxiety, conservatives had more activity between both the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and precuneus and the insula and frontal pole/OFC. And in addition to confirming the findings of previous studies regarding areas of the brain associated with political views, it found the hippocampus and inferior part of the opercular frontal gyrus were tied to conservatism.
However, Ryota Kanai, one of the authors of the University of South Carolina study, said that political beliefs may not develop solely from social experience, that they also could have biological roots, addressed further on in this article. Similarly, the 2013 book “Predisposed,” which analyzed differences in the brain, argued that opposing political views between the right and left are rooted in psychological, physiological and genetic traits, not just due to different cultures or growing up with different information.
A 2012 study from the University of South Carolina found through MRI scans that Republicans show more neural activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness like family and country, while Democrats have more neural activity in areas believed to be linked with broad social connectedness, such as friends and the world at-large. This study decimated the long-held stereotype that “Democrats enjoyed a virtual biological lock on caring for others.” This comes as no surprise since studies show that conservatives financially give “significantly” more generously than those on the left.
A 2009 study in the National Library of Medicine found that Republicans have stronger views when it comes to morals generally. Democrats were more willing to betray group loyalty and disrespect authority for cash. A 2010 study in the Attention, Perception & Psychophysics journal on following eye gazes found that conservatives value personal autonomy more than those on the left, making them less likely to be influenced by others.
A related study in 2011 found that conservatives are more grossed out by things than those on the left, such as viewing excrement or a mouthful of wriggling worms. This may correlate to a 2008 study at University of Nebraska-Lincoln which found that conservatives are responsive to threatening images, resulting in supporting defense spending and capital punishment. Interestingly, the differences between men and women were small.
Conservatives also tend to be neater and more conscientious. Compounding things, nonpartisans show different brain activity than either those on the right or or the left, and they make up about 40% of the population.
Genetics also plays a significant role in political differences; studies have found that parents’ political affiliations pass on to their children about 70% of the time. Perhaps most compelling of all, John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political scientist, researched twins and found that identical twins share more political beliefs than fraternal twins. Since identical twins share more genes, he concluded, “Forty, perhaps 50 percent of our political beliefs seem to have a basis in genetics.”
Unfortunately, some of the interpretations of these studies are clearly not accurate. Left-wing pundits gleefully declare that conservatives are not open to radical LGBT expansions because of fear – but this completely overlooks other factors, such as the high prevalence of Christians on the right who object based on biblical principles. Similarly, they declare that conservatives are opposed to abortion because of emotion – while ignoring that conservatives consistently reveal higher correlations to logical reasoning than those on the left.
Hibbing advises, “If you think your opponents are not just being willfully bullheaded but rather have a kind of biological predisposition toward a set of beliefs, you might not spend as much time beating your head against the wall trying to get them to change.” While there is some validity to this, and maybe we shouldn’t get so angry at the left because many of them can’t help it, you never know who isn’t going to fit the general rule and can be persuaded to change their viewpoints.