Red Brain, Blue Brain: Are There Neurological Differences Between Democrats and Republicans?

It turns out liberals and conservatives really do think differently.

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Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans

It turns out Democrats and Republicans really do think differently.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, a group of political scientists and neuroscientists have found that conservatives and liberals use different parts of their mind when making risky decisions, and that these differences in brain function can be used to predict party affiliation.

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Dr. Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter, authored the study in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California. Speaking with TIME, Schreiber explains that the study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. The team took the brain activity measurements of this sample of 82 people and cross-referenced it with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data.

“We found that you wouldn’t be able to see how Democrats and Republicans behaved differently in how they gambled, but if you looked into their brain, the differences in the levels of activity in different regions were substantial,” says Schreiber.

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They found that Republicans used their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.

Schreiber says that the study’s findings are consistent with similar studies that have been done around the world. “We are not overlapping in our results, but we are definitely looking at different parts of the same elephant,” he says. In a study published this month in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers at Brown University found that people who have more fearful dispositions were more inclined to be politically conservative.

(MOREThe More Things Change: Looking Back On Presidential Calls For Bipartisanship)

Schreiber is keen to stress that the ‘Red Brain, Blue Brain’ study does not show that humans are genetically hardwired to be a Democrat or a Republican, insisting that we are “hardwired not to be hardwired.” However the insula/amygdala brain function model does offer what they claim to be a 82.9% accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican — better than previous models which rely on a parent’s party affiliation or brain structure.

Perhaps one of the most nuanced and positive upshots of the study is the suggestion that our minds are shaped by different ideologies, rather than biologically pre-determined to think a certain way. “We are finding that the brain can change in response to the environment, i.e., we can change our minds. We can change our allies into enemies and enemies into allies,” says Schreiber — offering some scientific hope at least that humans can overcome their political differences.

MORE: Making Choices, How Your Brain Decides

34 comments
catdaddio42
catdaddio42

As fascinating as this study seems, it’s at least misleading. Basic biology, such as that represented in the Schreiber, et al., study, are absurd in the social science realm because choice and behavior are influenced by such complex things, not the least of which is self-interest. For example, even though a simple rule like “murder is a crime so don’t do it” has no realistic chance of being ironclad, no matter how many laws are passed. It's fascinating how the "self and socially conscious" liberals in big cities have all learned to love each other while we aggressive unthinking conservatives just live to hate and kill. I don’t know the relevant statistics but it’s clear that both “brain types” will violate the anti-murder statutes. I have learned that the insults to my conservative thinking are meant to be very personal and manipulative, as in “these insults should make you change your mind, you stupid amygdala type.” My problem is that, as a Christian Arab, I’ve experienced real threats so my defensive reactions are pretty ingrained. The first principle on my list – don’t trust anyone who is trying to rush you into something, especially if they’re a politician – is a result of those reactions. Discussions with my liberal colleagues typically reveal that they have lofty ideals but very little by way of either “street smarts” (they can’t usually tell when they are being conned) or logistics (they are very bad at predicting unintended consequences). My wife and I work with and donate to charities in a big way and yet have embraced the Tea Party because we oppose the intrusion of government and its methods of confiscation. I’m sure that’s because our brains are dysfunctional.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

THIS comes as no surprise.  Past studies have shown that conservatives have a higher tolerance for violence than do liberals. This study simply explains that the thinking of conservatives is generally based on self-centered aggression (fight or flight) while liberals think more about how they're going to affect others (self and social consciousness).  That tends to support the idea that conservatives will be more tolerant of violence than liberals.

If one compares these thought processes to the policies of the right and left, one can see how those policies would shape these thought patterns.  The rightist campaign tactics relies on instilling fear in their supporters - fear of the atheist, fear of the liberal, fear of the criminal, fear of the foreigner, fear of the non-Christian, fear of the tax man, fear of "gayness".  Their messages are generally all about banning things that they are afraid of.  This explains the "fight or flight" thinking that goes into their decisions.  Fear is what sparks that and it's a method to manipulate those people who don't (or really can't) do a lot of independent thinking.  Critical thinking isn't even in the equation because anyone who can think critically would see the logical inconsistencies and fallacies of the majority of rightist policies.

The liberal policies are generally about others rather than self.  Helping them, reaching out to them, being social, expanding civil rights to treat everyone equally before the law, being involved and part of the solution in helping others.  The study indicates that their thinking is shaped by these policies.  It is a more sophisticated thought process requiring more ability to think independently, but it doesn't demand critical thinking.  A critical thinker would see too much social interest to the detriment of the individual.  Bread and circuses can't be funded all the time.  There has to be a balance.

But in our society, we are polarized between the fearful and the pie-in-the-sky idealists.  Unfortunately, between the two, only the fearful, with their increased tolerance for violence, will react in a fight-or-flight manner since rightist policies tend to create that though pattern in them.  This is the reason why so many of them carry guns (Or think that guns are a solution to any problem), why rightists are the first to push for war or a military response to situations, why rightists have no problem threatening others with violence if they don't get their way and why they refuse to cooperate with any efforts that may "help" those they are afraid of.

A recent article in the news asked whether the GOP should change its policies or its pitch.  Given that one can not sell the former without the latter, and that their policies have not changed since 1980 while the world has changed a great deal since then (which explains rightist support for  weapons systems designed to meet a 1980's era threat), the policies of the rightist have to change in order for them to return to power.  But given the nature of rightist thinking, which dictates that nothing be allowed to change, it's unlikely that those policies will change enough to drive a new rightist movement.  It's just not possible for that tiger to change its stripes.

2905
2905

I always knew that Democrats suffered from a permanent genetic defect.  This helps confirm it.  Thanks.

tom.litton
tom.litton

If conservatives are reacting out of aggressiveness, then it explains why they seem to be more susceptible to confirmation bias, and also why the Tea Party has a lot of political clout and the occupy wall street are basically unheard of a few months later.

Clairebell
Clairebell

For as much as I would like to hop this bandwagon, 82 people isn't really a statistically significant sample for this to be viable.

PaperbackBook
PaperbackBook

Gee, I am really surprised that the first liberal comments are blasting republicans.  Typical.  So, based on these differences, please tell me what liberals want?   How about a list?

sim1too
sim1too

Gee,I am really surprised by this study . I never thought that the republicans had a thinking brain only a reactionary one.

roknsteve
roknsteve

I can't believe they got republicans to be a part of this experiment.  All that scientific mumbo-jumbo about republicans having a brain is beyond me.  Hey, It's in every Dr. Suess  book, look it up!

Carolyn
Carolyn

I am following this research and others' and have started to wonder - when we get the brain chemistry thing worked out, will there be a pill available to help people with their delusional paranoia stemming from the overactive amygdala?  Here in my western state, the militia types and the fantastical conspiracists constantly generate dire apocalyptic theories like bacteria.  They need to invent a chill pill.

mikeoffla
mikeoffla

Silly liberal. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Obama are all from your side of the fence. Conservatives fight for freedom from tyrants.

RyanEngland
RyanEngland

@DeweySayenoff I wouldn't say it's just conservative republicans that are unable to change.  Liberals seem eternally preoccupied with culture wars that go back at least as far as the 1960s.  The leftist mind in the western world is still at war with the 1950s image of suburbia, where a woman's place was in the kitchen and everybody was white, despite the fact that racial and sexual politics have changed enormously in the last half century.  Conversely, the right is still at war with the 1960s image of the counter-culture, even if free love and socialism fell out of favor on the left decades ago.  Conservative T-Rex and liberal brontosaur alike are both dinosaurs. 

DarrenSchreiber
DarrenSchreiber

@DeweySayenoff I am way less skeptical than you about people's ability to change their minds and their brains.  My colleague and friend Keith Poole has done some fantastic work showing that the ideology of the political parties has changed dramatically over time (look up the xkcd comic #1127 to see a nice visualization of his work).  The Republican party of 2013 isn't the same as the party in 2000, 1990, 1980, 1950, 1900, and very different from when Abraham Lincoln was a leader.  We're living in the most polarized time in American political history, but it hasn't always been that way. The parties change, their members change, and their member's brains change.

Carolyn
Carolyn

@DeweySayenoff Thank you for this well-thought-out missive.  Way more mature than my own reaction.  I appreciate your linking of the findings to how it plays out in politics.

DarrenSchreiber
DarrenSchreiber

@2905 DeweySayenoff is right.  The studies with twins suggest that party affiliation is less than 10% biologically heritable.  Environment and choice appear to play a very big role in both our political ideology (60%) and our party affiliation (90%).

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@2905 Given that it's not a genetic defect in the first place, but a matter of conditioning and environment, apparently your preconception still remains unfounded.  On the bright side, if it really IS a matter of conditioning and environment, there's still hope that your mind can be retrained to actually do the thinking, instead of your adrenal cortex.

DarrenSchreiber
DarrenSchreiber

@Clairebell You're right 82 people isn't enough participants to be a representative sample that would allow us to make inferences about all Democrats or all Republicans.  We'd need about 1,500 or so people to make that kind of inference.  Since it costs about $1,000 per person and hour per person to do a study like this, it'd be pretty hard to make a study of 1,500 people work for now.  But, the good news is that our results are consistent with results from a study in England and with other studies in the US that used different methodologies.  

The advantage of experiments though (as compared to surveys) is that we can get statistically significant results by repeating a condition again and again and seeing if the condition is related to a particular observed outcome.  For instance, if you stick your arm with a needle, you don't need to do it 1,500 times to be confident it is the needle causing the pain.  But, to be pretty confident that most people feel pain from the needle you would need to try it on a large sample.  It all depends on the type of question you want to ask.  Our results show that we can distinguish these Republicans from these Democrats.  We have reasons to believe our results will generalize, but until there is replication, it's good to be skeptical that the results hold for all Republicans and all Democrats.

Carolyn
Carolyn

@Clairebell True enough, but this is not the first study to show the same results, and probably not the last.  Perhaps the government could fund research to study a larger population?  Fat chance.  The overactive amygdala crowd would jump all over THAT.

Carolyn
Carolyn

@PaperbackBook What liberals - of all parties - want: Freedom from fear-based logic and decision-making.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@PaperbackBook The insults are typical, and mostly from people who are looking for a fight (ie trolls).

As far as the list of things liberals want?  Well i think it can all be boiled down as:

1. Help people that need it.

What is the list of what conservatives want?  I'm betting there is a way of (mostly) doing both.

DarrenSchreiber
DarrenSchreiber

@Carolyn Other research from twin studies shows that only 10% of party affiliation and 40% of political ideology is biologically heritable.  So, biology isn't destiny.  We are hardwired not to be hardwired.  People don't needs pills to change their brains.  We can read and reflect on the ideas of others and that will alter your mind.  London taxi drivers reshape their brains (specifically the hippocampus) when they learn the streets of London, no drugs needed.

idknonsense
idknonsense

@Carolyn It's called THC.  Now, if we could only convince these same fanatics that marijuana is not the devil's lettuce.

PaperbackBook
PaperbackBook

@tom.litton @PaperbackBook That is a broad thing.  And I think both sides want that, at least the "human" members of both sides.  That being said, I think the real conservatives want to people to "earn what they make, and keep what they earn"  Then via taxes, follow the preamble to the constitution where taxes pay for : "promote general welfare, provide for the common defense, ensure domestic tranquility, secure the blessings of liberty..."

Key there, to your point, is the general welfare.  This should be a hand up, not a hand out.  Cliche, I know, but true.  And it should only be for those that "need it"

Carolyn
Carolyn

@DarrenSchreiber @Carolyn Please, I was joking!  It's just that I live in one of the rightest of right-wing conspiracy capitols of the U.S. and I only WISH there was a pill!

Yes, all of these studies make it clear they feel the brain chemistry is been affected by the types of beliefs a person holds.  This is shown by studies of meditation and depression, and probably other mindsets as well.  Thank you for clarifying this point, as did the article.

Carolyn
Carolyn

@idknonsense @Carolyn That was my first thought as well!  However, then I remembered my own experiences with pot, and how it made me feel paranoid.  If that is a common reaction, that's the LAST thing the overactive amygdala crowd needs! If, on the other hand, my experience is unusual, then I should think there are areas that could use THC supplements in their water system, like flouride.  I really miss the old debates with Republicans about what are the best ways to help people.  Now the paranoia, at least in our local "tea party" and militia types, leads the debate out of that realm into "PEOPLE??  You want to help PEOPLE??  They're evil, obaministic socialistic communistic fascistic sinning gun-thieving Hitlers that brought in wolves to eat all the game animals so when they impose martial law we won't be able to take to the mountains to survive."  I'm serious - I heard that one yesterday.  If THC is the answer, bring it on!  Quickly!  Flood our ground water with it, sprinkle it from the sky, I don't care, but I'm fed up with these nuts.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@TedDubin @tom.litton @PaperbackBook 

Your free to earn enough to help people.  There are lots of people that do.  

Or do you mean the government should provide jobs that pay enough to help people?


tom.litton
tom.litton

@PaperbackBook @tom.litton I don't see any current republican proposals that will promote the general welfare even after the earmarks are trimmed.  Not that i think democrats are angels when it comes to legal bribery (ie campaign donations and lobbying).  

For Obamacare, anything as complicated as healthcare isn't going to be complete on the first go around.  It's better to get something to go forward with than to try and come up with a complete and perfect solution.  

Besides pre-existing conditions is huge.  It will save the lives of thousands of people and improve the health of millions (21 million by latest estimate).  I think it's a success based on that alone. 

PaperbackBook
PaperbackBook

@tom.litton @PaperbackBook  They are not antithesis, "keep what you earn" after appropriate taxes.  Those taxes are used by the gov't to do ...

There are no current proposals by either side that will truly help, unless you take a current proposal (pick nearly any of them) and trim the fat and earmarks.  The republicans are not against spending for infrastructure and providing for the general (needed) welfare, but we need some cuts somewhere as our current spending is not sustainable and those on the right end of your bell curve will really be in the hole when it s time to pay the piper at the end of an unruly deficit and spending spree.

As for Obamacare, it has a few, (few) merits but is too open and unfinished to have any valid arguments other than the bare fiew (pre-existing conditions, etc).  I do not consider those up to age 26 (unless in continued, valid education) being on your parents insurance a bonus.   If the job market was better those up to 26 would/should be in the workforce, thus increasing revenues...

tom.litton
tom.litton

@PaperbackBook@tom.litton"earn what they make, and keep what they earn" is antithesis to "This should be a hand up, not a hand out."  It takes resources to give people a hand out, and a lot more to give them a hand up (at least for the short term).   So why not focus efforts there instead of tax cuts (or fighting tax raises)?

Also there are going to be a non-insignificant number of people that are always going to need help.  The obvious group is the disabled, but there are others.  Think of a bell curve where at one end you have the bill gates, steve jobs, etc.  In the middle (the bell) you have the middle class, and on the other end you have people that (for whatever reason) can't provide for themselves or their families.  I think it's in the best interest of society to help them as well.


One more thing:  What current republican proposals are going to help people get a hand up?  For democrats i can point to spending on teachers and school grants that will likely be cut under republican plans. 

I can also point to clean technology subsidies, infrastructure bank, etc.  All of which helps create jobs (in theory at least) and improves the productivity of the country as a whole, which also promotes the general wellfare.  

Obamacare will provide insurance to a lot of people that would otherwise couldn't afford it.  I don't see how one could argue that does not improve the general welfare. 

Carolyn
Carolyn

@DarrenSchreiber @Carolyn Again, thanks for furthering the discussion of your research. This expanded context, and in messages above, is good food for thought. I'm still chewing on the implications of the different ways brains function, and have been ever since I heard of the first study in England.  Since you have been studying this, I'm sure you have given a lot of thought to the subject, such as the "designing institutions that we use to govern," you mentioned above.  I would like to see another article that goes into the potential applications of these types of findings - the "so what?" of it all.

DarrenSchreiber
DarrenSchreiber

@Carolyn @DarrenSchreiber :)  I figured there was some tongue in cheek here.  But, one thing I am excited about with this paper is that it adds to the evidence that the causality is complex.  We're not just robots carrying out the instructions of our genetic code.  As a lawyer, this is critical when we're trying to assess responsibility.  As a political scientist, this is critical for how we design institutions that we use to govern.  And yet, too often people talk about genes as destiny and misconstrue the details of the amazing scientific advancements that other researchers are making now.