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.

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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.

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43 comments
SmartJock33
SmartJock33

Funny. Liberals are a funny bunch. They pretend to be smart and then jump to conclusions only to be proven wrong then blame it on conservatives. Whatever.

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.