A relationship between political allegiance and how our brains work

by Oct 28, 2012Brain0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
With the American election looming, yet another study has come out which is making links between the states of mind of voters and their political views [1]. Researchers looked at children at age one and then followed them up 17 years later. A key predictor of whether these 1 year olds turned out to be Republican voters when they grew up was whether or not their parents had authoritarian parenting attitudes. Authoritarian attitudes are characterised by being very disciplinarian and often harsh, as opposed to authoritative parents who can assert authority fairly but who have a more democratic approach. Children with authoritarian parents were more likely to have conservative attitudes at age 18, even after accounting for their gender, ethnic background, cognitive functioning, and socioeconomic status. Children who had parents with egalitarian parenting attitudes, on the other hand, were more likely to hold liberal attitudes as young adults. Another factor which predicted more conservative attitudes was being more fearful at ages 4 or 5.

This study can be neatly put together with a range of other recent research, none as yet unequivocal but all suggesting that being on the political right might be associated with a range of psychological attitudes. Interestingly we know that, while inducing disgust such as by drinking a very bitter substance is likely to make most of us more moralistic, it seems that  this is even more true for those on the political right [2]. Indeed several studies are beginning to suggest that the brains of liberals and conservatives respond differently to the same stimuli. For example it appears that those on the left rely more on the cortex, having more grey matter there, whilst conservatives have higher volume in their amygdala, a brain area associated with strong emotions, and one we share with our more primitive evolutionary ancestors [3]. People tend to think of the cortex as a more sophisticated brain area, in evolutionary terms, one central to processing emotions and emotional regulation, as well as managing complexity.

Similarly irrespective of what people say when asked, those who have strong and  involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, ‘such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms’, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images’. Those who show higher levels of autonomic arousal, in other words those who are more reactive to stimuli such as loud noises or threatening images, are more likely to be right-wing voters [4]. Other studies have also shown that those on the right are more likely  to be highly sensitive to threatening stimuli [5] are more likely to be oriented to aversive stimuli than those on the left [6]. We know that high autonomic arousal is often associated with more stressful, or even traumatic experiences.

It seems that this can also work the other way around. For example people who are given an active prod concerning the importance of cleanliness were more likely to take a more right wing political attitude afterwards than those who did not receive the same prod [7]. Sensitivity to disgust  has indeed been found to be associated to political conservatism in very large samples across countries [8]. It is no coincidence that much right wing campaigning works by trying to prey on people’s fears, such as  about foreigners or Islamiscist terrorists, as by encouraging such fears, citizens are likely to, non-consciously, be influenced towards a move towards the right.


[1]        R. C. Fraley, B. N. Griffin, J. Belsky, and G. I. Roisman, ‘Developmental Antecedents of Political Ideology A Longitudinal Investigation From Birth to Age 18 Years’, Psychological Science, 2012.

[2]        K. J. Eskine, N. A. Kacinik, and J. J. Prinz, ‘A Bad Taste in the Mouth Gustatory Disgust Influences Moral Judgment’, Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 295–299, 2011.

[3]        R. Kanai, ‘Brain Structure and Individual Differences in Social Behaviors’, in 2012 AAAI Spring Symposium Series, 2012.

[4]        K. B. Smith, D. Oxley, M. V. Hibbing, J. R. Alford, and J. R. Hibbing, ‘Disgust sensitivity and the neurophysiology of left-right political orientations’, PloS one, vol. 6, no. 10, p. e25552, 2011.

[5]        L. Carraro, L. Castelli, and C. Macchiella, ‘The automatic conservative: Ideology-based attentional asymmetries in the processing of valenced information’, PloS one, vol. 6, no. 11, p. e26456, 2011.

[6]        M. D. Dodd, A. Balzer, C. M. Jacobs, M. W. Gruszczynski, K. B. Smith, and J. R. Hibbing, ‘The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 367, no. 1589, pp. 640–649, 2012.

[7]        E. G. Helzer and D. A. Pizarro, ‘Dirty liberals! Reminders of physical cleanliness influence moral and political attitudes’, Psychological science, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 517–522, 2011.

[8]        Y. Inbar, D. Pizarro, R. Iyer, and J. Haidt, ‘Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism, and Voting’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 3, no. 5, pp. 537–544, Sep. 2012.

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