9 minutes reading time (1814 words)

Protest, political allegiance, stress, fear and brains

One of the perplexing political questions of the moment is why, instead of more protest about issues such as poverty, unemployment, the lack of job security, as well as maybe climate change and a host of issues that are affecting people’s lives for the worse, we rather see people whose backs are against the wall becoming economically and in other ways  more conservative. hence the increased support for far right parties such as UKIP in the UK. We have often seen extreme political views flourish at times of crisis. 


Psychology  and psychoanalysis has long attempted to answer such questions. The psychoanalytic concept of projection helpfully explained how we can all attempt to make ourselves feel better by blaming, attacking or denigrating others who we like to see as inferior to us, such as foreigners and those from other ethnic groups.  Recent neuroscience research has provided another angle on such issues. Typical is Johnathon Rensher’s recent research[1] on the effects of anxiety on political attitudes, and how fear tends to make us more suspicious and  wary of others. 

In a recent study  138 men from Cambridge, Massachusetts watched films and then answered questions. Some watched relaxing images such as of beaches and palm trees, or heard soothing music. Others had to watch Sylvester Stallone's rather terrifying film, "Cliffhanger." The latter group not surprisingly had  heightened physiological reactivity after watching two minutes of rope dangling peril. Maybe more worryingly, watching this led them to have stronger anti-immigration and prejudiced attitudes.

This maybe should not be too surprising. Fear, anxiety or anger generally turns off or down our empathy circuits,  and leads us to function from what are often considered more primitive brain pathways, those that we share with our less sophisticated mammalian and reptilian ancestors. When our backs are against the wall we need to fight or flee, and certainly not to be interested in other people’s feelings.

Lots of other research is pointing in a similar direction. Dr. Darren Schreiber [2], [3] from the University of Exeter and collaborators in UC San Diego found striking differences between Republicans and Democrats during risk-taking tasks. Democrats demonstrated much greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness. Republicans on the other hand used their right amygdala more , a region involved in the body's fight-or-flight system. Amazingly brain activity in these two regions alone predicted if  a person is a Democrat or Republican with 82.9% accuracy, which is much better than any other predictors we have, such as looking at genes or parental political allegiance. 

This might also explain why we see more conservative political views as well as racism in those who also have guns at home in America, and are more opposed to lenient immigration and other liberal policies as Kerry O’Brien found in a recent study [4]. A state of mind in which fear is prominent often gives rise to more suspicion and less likelihood of caring for others who are 'not like us'.

This kind of research has been coming through thick and fast recently. For example one study by Robert Newman-Norlund   [5] found  that democrats tended to have higher activation in brain areas central to understanding other people’s points of views, particularly the mirror-neuron system, and specifically the inferior frontal gyrus, supramarginal gyrus and angular gyrus. Republicans tended to process social experiences in brain areas which suggested  a tighter, less outward focussed attitude, one which relied more on loyalty and tradition. This is what Johnathon Haidt found as well in his study of the morality and politics [6]. Other research similarly shows that political liberals seem to have more activity in brain areas to do with empathy and interest in strangers whilst those on the right have higher amygdala activation, suggesting higher fear [7]. Such differences in brain physiology has led other researchers to suggest [8], that those on the left ‘roll with the good’ whereas those on the right are quicker to oppose the bad

What much research is suggesting is that when people are suspicious, fearful and things are going badly, they tend to have more activation in areas of the brain such as the insula, central to disgust, and fear, and less activation in brain areas to do with empathy, curiosity openness and the like. One large study, of over 30,000 people,  found clear evidence of a link between higher levels of disgust and political conservatism, and the same researchers reported in an international sample a link between conservatism, disgust and a distrust of the ‘different’, including a range of pathogens [9].

Those with stronger involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a person eating a plateful of writhing worms, are more likely to be conservative and, for example oppose gay marriage, than those whose responses to such images are more muted.  [10]. Apparently those on the political right are more likely to be motivated by disgust and aversion than those on the left [8]. Generally a fear of contamination goes with more right wing views[11]  Indeed some studies suggest that just putting the idea of cleanliness into people’s minds can make them more conservative! [12]

There is a danger that some people will treat such findings as suggesting that our political attitudes are due to how our brains are wired, and so are predetermined, maybe by our genes. However I think this is far from likely.  Much research about the brain and trauma, abuse or stress [13]–[16] has shown how when our threat systems are engaged, when we sense danger, then the bodily and brain areas central to social engagement  [17], [18] are turned off. For example, we know that adults and young people who have been traumatised are more reactive to stress, and their brains respond in kind [19]–[21]. They particularly show high levels of amygdala reactivity which is exactly what we see in people who have more authoritarian political views[22]. 

Heightened fear responses after stress or trauma is a basic survival response. People whose lives are tougher, such as those who suffered abuse or trauma, tend to have more activation of such fear and stress systems. The brain areas that are active in fear, anxiety, threat or anger in fact work against those that are central to cooperation, empathy or caring for others; they can rather give rise to much more conservatism. I suspect this is the explanation for many of the findings which suggest that just when you might think people should be protesting, and wanting to join together to fight for a better world, in fact they often become more conservative, suspicious  and less politically active.


[1]        J. Renshon, J. J. Lee, and D. Tingley, ‘Physiological Arousal and Political Beliefs’, Export BibTex Tagged XML immigrationanxiety. pdf, vol. 559, 2013.

[2]        D. Schreiber, G. Fonzo, A. N. Simmons, C. T. Dawes, T. Flagan, J. H. Fowler, and M. P. Paulus, ‘Red brain, blue brain: Evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans’, PloS one, vol. 8, no. 2, p. e52970, 2013.

[3]        D. Schreiber, A. N. Simmons, C. T. Dawes, T. Flagan, J. H. Fowler, and M. P. Paulus, ‘Red brain, blue brain: Evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans’, in American Political Science Association annual meeting, Toronto. Available online at http://dmschreiber. ucsd. edu/Publications/RedBrainBlueBrain. pdf, 2009.

[4]        K. O’Brien, W. Forrest, D. Lynott, and M. Daly, ‘Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions’, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, p. e77552, Oct. 2013.

[5]        R. Newman-Norlund, J. Burch, and K. Becofsky, ‘Human Mirror Neuron System (hMNS) specific differences in resting-state functional connectivity in self-reported Democrats and Republicans: A pilot study’, Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science, vol. 3, p. 341, 2013.

[6]        J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Allen Lane, 2012.

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

[8]        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.

[9]        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.

[10]       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.

[11]       J. A. Terrizzi Jr., N. J. Shook, and M. A. McDaniel, ‘The behavioral immune system and social conservatism: a meta-analysis’, Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 99–108, Mar. 2013.

[12]       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.

[13]       A. N. Schore, ‘Attachment trauma and the developing right brain: Origins of pathological dissociation’, Dissociation and the dissociative disorders: DSM-V and beyond, pp. 107–141, 2009.

[14]       B. D. Perry, ‘Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture’, Brain and mind, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 79–100, 2002.

[15]       R. L. Bluhm, P. C. Williamson, E. A. Osuch, P. A. Frewen, T. K. Stevens, K. Boksman, R. W. Neufeld, J. Théberge, and R. A. Lanius, ‘Alterations in default network connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder related to early-life trauma’, Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, vol. 34, no. 3, p. 187, 2009.

[16]       J. LeDoux, The emotional brain. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

[17]       S. W. Porges, The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: Norton, 2011.

[18]       P. Ogden, Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy, 1st ed. W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

[19]       K. M. Thomas, W. C. Drevets, R. E. Dahl, N. D. Ryan, B. Birmaher, C. H. Eccard, D. Axelson, P. J. Whalen, and B. J. Casey, ‘Amygdala response to fearful faces in anxious and depressed children’, Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1057–1063, 2001.

[20]       C. Márquez, G. L. Poirier, M. I. Cordero, M. H. Larsen, A. Groner, J. Marquis, P. J. Magistretti, D. Trono, and C. Sandi, ‘Peripuberty stress leads to abnormal aggression, altered amygdala and orbitofrontal reactivity and increased prefrontal MAOA gene expression’, Translational psychiatry, vol. 3, no. 1, p. e216, 2013.

[21]       W. D. S. Killgore and D. A. Yurgelun-Todd, ‘Social anxiety predicts amygdala activation in adolescents viewing fearful faces.’, Neuroreport, vol. 16, no. 15, pp. 1671–5, 2005.

[22]       J. C. Butler, ‘Authoritarianism and fear responses to pictures: The role of social differences’, International Journal of Psychology, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 18–24, 2013.


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