Neuroscience Reveals the Differences Between Republican and Democrat Brains

February 1, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Donald Trump
Photo credit: Ninian Reid/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

The differences go beyond the ballot box.

It goes without saying that there are very different thought processes going on in the heads of Trump supporters versus Bernie ones, for example. Many might argue that political views are largely shaped by our environments, but it turns out that our neurobiology may significantly contribute to whether we think like Reds or Blues.

Back in 2013, a team of political scientists and neuroscientists got together to study how liberals and conservatives use different parts of the brain when making risky decisions. Their findings suggest that these brain regions can be used to predict which political party an individual prefers, and that being a Republican or Democrat truly does have an influence on how the brain functions.

The researchers looked into a previous study that measured the brain activity of volunteers playing a gambling game, but they separated the data to compare Democrats and Republicans.

SEE ALSO: Left-Brained vs. Right-Brained? Myth Debunked

Interestingly, the opposite groups didn’t differ in the risks they took, but there were striking differences in the brain activities that lit up during the decision-making process. The Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with emotional processing as well as social and self-awareness, while the Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region that plays a role in the body’s fight-or-flight system.

This data provides evidence that Democrats and Republicans use different cognitive processes when they think about risk. In fact, the researchers say that the brain activity in these two regions alone could predict whether a person is a Democrat or a Republican with 82.9 percent accuracy — more accurate than using a model based on the political affiliations of an individual’s parents, which is only accurate about 69.5 percent of the time.

"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 amygdala and insula is significantly larger,” said Dr. Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics, “suggesting that affiliating with a political party and engaging in a partisan environment may alter the brain, above and beyond the effect of heredity."

Other research looked at the psychological differences between Republicans and Democrats, finding fundamental differences between things like morals and fears.

“Conservatism, apparently, helps to protect people against some of the natural difficulties of living,” says social psychologist Paul Nail of the University of Central Arkansas. “The fact is we don't live in a completely safe world. Things can and do go wrong. But if I can impose this order on it by my worldview, I can keep my anxiety to a manageable level.”

According to Nail’s research, people of all political persuasions became more conservative in the weeks after September 11, 2001, showing that fear can play a role in driving Republican views.  

SEE ALSO: Do Republicans Have Happier Marriages Than Democrats?

Interestingly, in another experiment, psychologists reframed climate change as “a threat to the American way of life” and talked up environmental actions as patriotic. The findings showed that the study volunteers who displayed typical conservative traits were much more likely to sign petitions about preventing oil spills and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the issue was spun in such a way.

When it comes to morals, research has found that conservatives are much less likely to budge than liberals. In a 2009 study, over 8,000 people were presented with a series of hypothetical actions, like kicking a dog in the head, cursing at their parents to their faces, or receiving a blood transfusion from a child molester. Participants were asked how much money they would need to receive in order to do those deeds — $10? $100,000? More?

The results showed that the liberals were reluctant to harm a living thing or act unfairly — even for $1 million — but they were more willing to betray group loyalty and disrespect authority for cash. Conservatives, on the other hand, were less willing to compromise on any of the moral categories.

On a surface level, it’s obvious that Republicans and Democrats are different in many ways, but it’s intriguing to delve into the psychology and neuroscience of these differences — however, Donald Trump’s brain may always remain a bit of a scientific mystery, in my opinion…

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