Conservative and liberal political views may be inborn, to at least some extent. That’s the key conclusion of a team of political scientists and neuroscientists that found Republicans and Democrats use different parts of their brains when they make risky decisions, and those regions may influence the political party they prefer.
Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter, said his team’s findings suggest that while genetics and parental influence may play a significant role in political values, being a liberal or conservative is partly a function of how the brain functions.
His findings, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE, are the latest to emerge from studies he has been conducting in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California-San Diego that explore the differences in the way the brain functions in American Democrats and Republicans.
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"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 [brain] 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," he said.
Schreiber’s conclusions are based on brain scans of 82 people, whose party affiliations were disclosed, as they played a simple gambling game. The results showed that Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the risks they took during the game, but there were striking differences in the participants' brain activity during the risk-taking task.
Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with empathy, and social and self-awareness. Meanwhile Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body's fight-or-flight system. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk.
In fact, the researchers were able to predict, with an 83 percent certainty, whether the players were Democrats or Republicans, solely based on monitoring their brain activity in these two regions.
"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,” said Schreibner.
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