You are biologically wired to disagree with [insert political ideology here]

Illustration for article titled You are biologically wired to disagree with [insert political ideology here]

Evidence continues to mount that your political leanings are determined, to some extent, by aspects of your biology. The latest installment in this emerging area of research comes from the University of Nebraska, in a study that looks at peoples' responses to certain forms of visual stimuli — politically themed or otherwise.


Wired's Brandon Keim summarizes the first half of the study:

Research has already shown that, compared to liberals, conservatives display heightened responses to threatening images. Michael Dodd of the University of Nebraska wanted to explore this in finer detail: He showed 46 left-or-right-leaning Nebraskans a series of images alternately disgusting (spiders on faces, open wounds) and appealing (smiling children, cute rabbits.) Dodd's team found that conservatives reacted most strongly to negative images, and liberals most strongly to positive photographs.

Then he showed them pictures of well-known politicians [these included figures such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush]. The same patterns held: Conservatives displayed more distaste than liberals for politicians they disliked, while liberals felt more positive than conservatives about politicians they liked.

Illustration for article titled You are biologically wired to disagree with [insert political ideology here]

These two figures visualize the results from the first half of the study. The chart on the left depicts arousal response of self-identified conservatives (depicted by triangles) and liberals (square dots) to images of bunnies and such. The graph on the right depicts their responses to images of politicians. Response was determined by monitoring electrical conductance of the skin — a popular method of measuring psychological and physiological arousal.

The second half of the study examined subjects' attentional bias (measured, for example, by determining where a test participant will cast his or her gaze when presented with a collage of various images). You can read about the details about the setup in the paper itself (no subscription required), but the upshot was that study participants who self-identified as left-of-center tended to focus more quickly on positive images, while subjects who identified as right-leaning tend to fixate more quickly on aversive images.

So what is there to take away from all this? Dodd and his colleagues wrap things up with some social commentary that is atypical of peer reviewed publications, and it warrants a lengthy citation:

The choice available to society is not between people whose political orientations are either completely changeable or to some extent biologically predisposed. Rather, the choice is between recognizing that physiological and cognitive patterns lead to politically relevant variations in the manner in which the outside world is experienced or, alternatively, pretending that political orientations are rational, free-floating and unencumbered. Given this choice set, we suggest that there are real advantages to embracing the relevance of these deeper, biological variables. After all, it is far easier to tolerate differences if they are recognized to be in part biologically based (consider the debate over homosexuality where those acknowledging a biological source are typically more tolerant than those maintaining sexual preference is entirely environmentally determined). Rather than believing those with political views opposing ours are lazily uninformed or wilfully obtuse, political tolerance could be enhanced and cultural conflict diminished if it is widely recognized that at least part of our political differences spring from subconscious physiological and cognitive variations that lead people to experience the world in fundamentally different ways and therefore to believe that fundamentally different political policies are appropriate.


While I can't say I disagree with the researchers' proposal — understanding that correlations like the ones presented in this paper exist is certainly important, and they may well develop into more well-established concepts as the field advances — I would add that it's important not to let findings like these get in the way of critical thought or intelligent debate. After all, just because somebody isn't lazily uninformed or willfully obtuse, doesn't preclude the possibility that they are, in fact, uninformed and obtuse.

The researchers' findings are published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (No subscription required). Read more about the neurobiology of conflict over on Wired.


[Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B via WIRED]



The popular wisdom used to be that if a man was not a Democrat at age 20, he had no soul, and if he was not a Republican by age 50 he had no brains. In other words, it was expected that people's political affiliations would change with time.

When did that go away? Or did it? Do our brains rewire as we grow older?

Or perhaps — and I think this is most likely — the definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' have changed into the entrenched caricatures that they are now. When faced with cartoon representations of political extremes, only our lifetime brain wiring determine which one we'll choose.

Our cartoons are becoming more realistic at the same time real life is becoming more cartoonish. It's amazing that our brains can keep up.