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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