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 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 ,  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 . 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  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 . 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 . Such differences in brain physiology has led other researchers to suggest , 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 .
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. . Apparently those on the political right are more likely to be motivated by disgust and aversion than those on the left . Generally a fear of contamination goes with more right wing views Indeed some studies suggest that just putting the idea of cleanliness into people’s minds can make them more conservative! 
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 – has shown how when our threat systems are engaged, when we sense danger, then the bodily and brain areas central to social engagement ,  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 –. They particularly show high levels of amygdala reactivity which is exactly what we see in people who have more authoritarian political views.
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.
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