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The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans


Science & Tech  (tags: research, science, scientists, society, investigation, discovery, concept, interesting, humans, study )

JL
- 547 days ago - motherjones.com
Two new studies further support the theory that our political decision making could have a neurological basis.



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JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 8:05 am


Mother Jones
The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans
Two new studies further support the theory that our political decision making could have a neurological basis.

By Chris Mooney | Fri Feb. 15, 2013 3:01 AM PST

It is still considered highly uncool to ascribe a person's political beliefs, even in part, to that person's biology: hormones, physiological responses, even brain structures and genes. And no wonder: Doing so raises all kinds of thorny, non-PC issues involving free will, determinism, toleration, and much else.

There's just one problem: Published scientific research keeps going there, with ever increasing audacity (not to mention growing stacks of data).

The past two weeks have seen not one but two studies published in scientific journals on the biological underpinnings of political ideology. And these studies go straight at the role of genes and the brain in shaping our views, and even our votes.

First, in the American Journal of Political Science [1], a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the relationship between our deep-seated tendencies to experience fear—tendencies that vary from person to person, partly for reasons that seem rooted in our genes—and our political beliefs. What they found is that people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own. As McDermott carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. "It's not that conservative people are more fearful, it's that fearful people are more conservative," as she puts it [2].

I interviewed the paper's lead author, Peter Hatemi, about his research for my 2012 book The Republican Brain. Hatemi is both a political scientist and also a microbiologist, and as he stressed to me, "nothing is all genes, or all environment." These forces combine to make us who we are, in incredibly intricate ways.

And if Hatemi's and McDermott's research blows your mind, get this [3]: Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, first performed brain scans on 82 people participating in a risky gambling task, one in which holding out for more money increases your possible rewards, but also your possible losses. Later, cross-referencing the findings with the participants' publicly available political party registration information, Schreiber noticed something astonishing: Republicans, when they took the same gambling risk, were activating a different part of the brain than Democrats.

Republicans were using the right amygdala, the center of the brain's threat response system. Democrats, in contrast, were using the insula, involved in internal monitoring of one's feelings. Amazingly, Schreiber and his colleagues write that this test predicted 82.9 percent of the study subjects' political party choices—considerably better, they note, than a simple model that predicts your political party affiliation based on the affiliation of your parents.

I also interviewed Schreiber for The Republican Brain. He's a scientist who was once quite cautious about the relevance of brain studies to people's politics. As he put it to me: "If you had called me four years ago and said, 'What is your view on whether Republicans and Democrats have different brains?' I would have said no." Now, his own published research suggests otherwise.
The current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences your brain.

One again, though, there's a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.

The two new studies described here are likely connected: It is hard not to infer that fear of outsiders or those different from you—along with greater fear dispositions in general—may be related to the role of amygdala, a brain structure that has been dubbed the "heart and soul of the fear system [4]." The amygdala has been repeatedly implicated in politics. Indeed, Schreiber's research builds on prior brain studies: In a group of University College of London students, for instance, conservatives showed more gray matter [5] in the right amygdala.

So what's the upshot? How about this: We need a much broader and more thoughtful discussion about what it means if political ideology turns out to be nothing like what we actually thought it was. Scientists working in this new field tend towards the conclusion that the new research should make us more tolerant, not less, of political difference—not to mention a whole lot more humble about our own deeply held beliefs.
Source URL: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans

Links:
[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajps.12016/full
[2] http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2013/02/fear
[3] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0052970
[4] http://books.google.com/books?id=7EJN5I8sk2wC&pg=PA172&lpg=PA172&dq=%22heart+and+soul+of+the+fear+system%22&source=bl&ots=05baiFvnXI&sig=zG8k4bD6UIOsguZm7L6L-A4ClNM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Qo4dUcn7DqmK0QGAnID4DQ&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22heart%20and%20soul%20of%20the%20fear%20system%22&f=false
[5] http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(11)00289-2
 

jan b. (3)
Monday February 18, 2013, 8:08 am
Republicans and democrats reside in different moral and different prinicipled universes.
 

Maggie Schafer (1)
Monday February 18, 2013, 8:49 am
Bravo Janice - you said that right! Other studies have suggested the same - Republicans are far less moral and ethical and that is why they congregate. But, then, we knew that.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:02 am
You cannot currently send a star to janice because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Alice because you have done so within the last week.
 

Angelika R. (146)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:31 am
While I wo't get to your posts till later, for now I do want to say LOVE THAT PIC !!!!:) -says it all..
 

Angelika R. (146)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:42 am
Ok, well, I read it. what this ineresting article ultimately states is simply that we all undergo changes during our course of life, along with our brains changing. Preaching more tolerance, fine-(looks like Obama already knew this research result :-) )
My interpretation: Repukes are THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, period. That brain pictured on their bodies appears to be a bit too big though..
 

Autumn S. (143)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:51 am
Well said, Janice :) thanks, JL
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 10:52 am
You cannot currently send a star to Angelika because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Autumn because you have done so within the last week.
 

jo M. (3)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:19 am
Obviously the new research has yet to sink in for certain commenters here. Or else the scientists are wrong about that tolerance and humility thing.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:34 am
Thanks for providing such a grand example of the point you were trying to make at others' expense Jo.
 

Mitchell D. (130)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:34 am
The evidence for the role of the structure of the brain on political outlook has been growing apace. Schreiber's comments on what is called the "Neuroplasticty" of the brain, have been known for some time now. What you do, and how you think can change the wiring of your brain, literally!
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. has 2 books out, regarding this, and its use in Mindfulness practice, and late last year he hosted a 7 part, seminar on "The Compassionate Brain."
Because of the plasticity of the brain, one can not make the excuse that one can not change one's views because they are hard-wired, but one must accept the responsibility, Einstein is quoted on this very site to"...free ourselves by widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures..." not just those in our intimate circle, or tribe. This latter, other research has pointed out, is where the conservatives put their focus.
 

Nancy M. (201)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:40 am
Interesting article. Thanks.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:47 am
Thanks for ensuring we do not miss the aspects related to our personal choices on what is happening in our brains Mitchell! Also, thanks for the Einstein quote. You cannot currently send a star to Mitchell because you have done so within the last week.
You are welcome Nancy.
 

Malgorzata Zmuda (181)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:47 am
kompletne bzdury
 

Carol D. (108)
Monday February 18, 2013, 12:22 pm
interesting Maybe they will start scanning our brains next time we go to the polls They could count the votes beforehand then Well anythings possible I mean why would they even waste money or want to do these tests to know what we vote for Beats Me!
I would rather they fed hungry children or animals

Noted Thank you
 

Past Member (0)
Monday February 18, 2013, 12:58 pm
"Political neuroscientist"? Really? Never knew there was such a thing, (and, evidently, neither does the dictionary here).
Alright, i have a problem with this type of research. The Nazis were heavily involved in such research. All it does is cause division and strife. I mean, a lot of people reading this could interpret conservatives as being more cowardly. If they want to do such studies, do them on the elite vs. the rest of us.
 

Joanne Dixon (38)
Monday February 18, 2013, 1:17 pm
Surely none of us can be surprised that the Republicans lean heavily on what's often referred to as the "lizard brain."

And as far as morals go - oh, yes, they have them - and they think that we liberals don't. But that is because they have redefined "morals" as "morals specifically related to the concepts of purity and sanctity." These are the very morals that Jesus spent a lot of his time on earth deconstructing. In the 40's, 50's and to an extent the 60's the word "morals" was so identified with "traditional sexual morals" that you could say something like "He's not immoral, but he is a crook" and no one would see any inconsistency there, and all would think they knew what you meant. Well, many Republicans are still there.
 

Past Member (0)
Monday February 18, 2013, 1:59 pm
Huh. I guess it's not surprising.
 

Dave C. (213)
Monday February 18, 2013, 2:10 pm
personally, I'm not actually surprised.....thanks for the excellent post.
 

Julie F. (63)
Monday February 18, 2013, 2:25 pm
Thanks for the article.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 3:36 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Carol because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Robert because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Laura because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Dave because you have done so within the last week.
You are welcome Julie.
 

Tom Edgar (56)
Monday February 18, 2013, 3:44 pm
Err. This goes against all the current thoughts on brain capacity of Republicans.. It was always surmised, on anecdotal evidence, that the brain capacity was inversely proportional to the skull size. As we are all aware most Republicans are both pig, and big headed.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 4:07 pm
LOL Tom! You cannot currently send a star to Tom because you have done so within the last week.
 

Birgit W. (144)
Monday February 18, 2013, 4:45 pm
Noted
 

Claudia O. (73)
Monday February 18, 2013, 5:13 pm
I jumped on the "YAY Janice" train. Good statement.
 

Freya H. (303)
Monday February 18, 2013, 7:40 pm
I can imagine the jokes: What? You mean Democrats (or Republicans) actually have brains?
The running joke says that if you have a heart but no brain, you vote Democrat; if you have a brain but no heart, you vote Republican; if you have both a heart and a brain, you vote Libertarian.
 

jo M. (3)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:14 pm
How true, Freya.

 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:17 pm
Most jokes aren't considered true by thinking people I've found.
 

jo M. (3)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:18 pm
You know some thinking people?
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:21 pm
Most people I know and have known in my lifetime have been thinking people many with exceptional analytical skills resulting in consistent logic without fallacies or unwarranted assumptions Jo--it is a skill one can learn if you are interested in developing that part of your brain like the research indicated is possible for those who so chooses.
 

jo M. (3)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:25 pm
So you are saying there is hope for both Democrats and Republicans?
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:31 pm
There is hope for anyone open to learning and revising their thinking based on new factual information so that their beliefs align with current facts rather than myths or obsolete information that no longer applies given changes in relevant factors.
 

Terry V. (30)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:49 pm
I thought it was the number of STRINGS attached.....
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:54 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Joan because you have done so within the last week.
 

JL A. (275)
Monday February 18, 2013, 9:56 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Terry because you have done so within the last week...sometimes those strings make me wish they'd be a different kind for playing the world's tiniest violin LOL
 

Robert Hardy (67)
Monday February 18, 2013, 10:39 pm
Hmmmmmm/
 

june t. (65)
Monday February 18, 2013, 11:07 pm
always a good topic for discussion
 

John B. (215)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 1:55 am
Thanks J.L. for this excellent post. Quite interesting and I do hope it might lead to what the author suggests, That this new " research should make us more tolerant, not less, of political difference—not to mention a whole lot more humble about our own deeply held beliefs." Read and noted.
 

Jaime A. (32)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 8:18 am
Noted.
 

Diane K. (136)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 8:52 am
I would say that both Republicans & Democrats, must share something similar in their brains, that they have become Politicians!! Interesting. thanks
 

Past Member (0)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 3:54 pm
These findings confirm suspicions I’ve had since Nixon’s, and then Reagan’s manipulation of that fearful conservative brain.

"...., there's a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes."

Do you see what this says? Conservatives brains are getting worse and worse all the time! These people are a CANCER on our society! Conservatives can't evolve, they can only regress.

Thanks J.L.
 

Past Member (0)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 4:07 pm
Sam Harris on "Free Will"
 

JL A. (275)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 4:10 pm
Thank you for posting the link to the relevant video MJ! The video site describes it this way:
" Published on Mar 27, 2012

SAM HARRIS IS THE AUTHOR of the New Work Times bestsellers, The Moral Landscape, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. His new book is short (96) pages, to the point, and will change the way we all view free will, as Oliver Sacks wrote: "Brilliant and witty — and never less than incisive — Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000." UCSD neuroscientist V.S, Ramachandran notes: "In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates — with great intellectual ferocity and panache — that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings."
 

Past Member (0)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 4:33 pm
Thanks J.L., I was thinking that many may miss the relevance.
 

Shirley B. (5)
Tuesday February 19, 2013, 8:41 pm
I read Chris Mooney's article in Alternet (Feb. 23rd 2012) regarding this in relation to their attitude to global warming and elections etc. and it is quite worrisome. Mainly because they breed.
 

JL A. (275)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 7:26 am
Perhaps these changed elements are not in our genetics and so do not get passed on to our children. Worth someone studying to find out.You cannot currently send a star to Shirley because you have done so within the last week.
 

Julia R. (290)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 1:51 pm
Very interesting article! I believe that these neurological differences could cause different political affiliations and the differences in the way Republicans and Democrats think. Also, the upshot of this unfortunately, for our Nation is this what accounts for such stagnation in our govt. so that we can't make a lot of progress and changes that we really need in a climate that is vastly changing? It has also been recognized in biology that nurture does affect nature. So, even if these neurological differences can predict a person's party affiliation better than one's parents, it could be that those parents in the way they raised their children contributed to differences in the way the brain has been wired ultimately causing these differences in the way Republicans and Democrats think. Well, the good news is the brain's plasticity and as this article also notes, " simply by living our lives, we change our brains." Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 4:20 pm
Marvelous analyses Julia!
 
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