On the Mind: The Science Behind Political Beliefs

Science Features On The Mind
On the Mind: The Science Behind Political Beliefs

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.


With a presidential inauguration days away, political beliefs are sure to ruffle a few feathers. One side will be celebrating while the other marches in protest. But how do we develop these beliefs and stick with them, anyway? Is there a science behind these feelings in our minds? In fact, there is, and it’s a new field called political neuroscience, which is only a few years old.

Studies Say

Scientists can predict whether someone identifies as liberal or conservative by how they react to disgusting images. Truly, neuroscientists can see brain differences between Republicans and Democrats. And politicians are using that knowledge to turn our fears and tears into votes.

Then again, it’s not so easy to change our minds. When our beliefs are challenged, parts of the brain light up associated with personal identity, and we hang on to what we already believe. The potentially creepy part is that scientists are also looking at the specific parts of the brain that light up during politically-charged moments and studying how brain changes such as traumatic brain injury affect those beliefs. If that isn’t Big Brother enough, researchers are also studying how to physically change those political beliefs, including non-invasive brain stimulation. Ready to put on a tin foil hat yet?

Key Takeaways

We’re learning that there’s more to political beliefs than simply copying mom and dad or running off to a liberal college. As the political neuroscience field develops and we learn more, we can implement some common sense advice in everyday political discussions with others, whether or not we agree with them.

Different Political Beliefs are Normal

Our brains are naturally hard-wired in different ways, and this includes perceptions and values that make up those beliefs. For instance, University of South Carolina researchers found that Democrats tend to value broad social connections such as friends and the “world at-large,” and Republicans tend to value tight social connections such as family and country. This may deepen the stereotype that Democrats are more global-minded and Republicans are more America-centric, but it seems to ring true to some extent.

“The differences are significant and real,” said Roger Newman-Norluand, the lead researcher and an exercise science professor at USC. “The results were a little surprising.”

The differences could stem from genetics, experiences or both, just like the age-old nature versus nurture conversation.

Beliefs are Tied to Inherent Values, Including Fear

Since political affiliation is associated with several broad areas of life—autonomy, education, family and sex—researchers at Virginia Tech, Rice University and Yale wondered if political beliefs connect to the way we physically respond to threats on those areas, such as germs or violence. MRI scans showed a stark difference, especially when the test subjects looked at a picture of the mutilated body of an animal.

“A single disgusting image was sufficient to predict each subject’s political orientation,” said Read Montague, a neuroscience and neuroimaging professor. “I haven’t seen such clean predictive results in any other functional imaging experiments in our lab or others.”

If we understand that some people’s beliefs are gut reactions—just like seeing a gross picture—it may be easier to tone down political hate and slow down our responses. Then again, keeping an open mind when you’re hard-wired a certain way is easier said than done.

It’s Tough to Change Beliefs … But Possible

When we believe what we believe, contradictory evidence makes us hard-headed. Studies have said this before, but a new study released just before Christmas backs it up once more. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute used MRI scans to survey brain reactions in relation to political statements that aligned with the participants’ political beliefs, then political statements that challenged them.

“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are,” said Jonas Kaplan, a psychology and cognitive neuroscience professor. “To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

Which may not be a bad idea. The USC researchers found that those most resistant to changing their beliefs had brain areas light up that correlated to threat, fear and anxiety. Emotion plays a role in what we believe is true and not true, and fear is one of the strongest emotions that drives those beliefs.

Political Neuroscience is Expanding

In 2017, scientists are not only focusing on what happened with fear during the presidential campaign in 2016 but also what will happen with fake new stories moving forward. Scientists will continue to use more complex and invasive measures, such as MRI scans and brain stimulation, to figure out what’s happening. Researchers in the United Kingdom and Japan found, for instance, that stimulating a region involved with cognitive conflict increased conservative values, regardless of the participant’s initial political orientation or the political ad they saw during the study. Essentially, stimulation of the part of your brain that connects to fear may lead to more protective, or conservative, thoughts.

“People generally have imperfect introspective access to the mechanisms underlying their political beliefs,” they wrote in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Yet they “confidently communicate the reasoning that goes into their decision-making process.”

In fact, lesions on other parts of the brain could lead to more radical statements, which scientists could use in the future to understand extremist beliefs, both liberal and conservative. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago and George Mason University in Virginia noticed that traumatic brain injury patients with lesions in the prefrontal cortex were more likely to be extreme about political beliefs regarding welfare, economy, civil rights, war and security than healthy patients. In the future, could brain scans show us who is more likely to have beliefs not as rooted in logic?

The Latest Research Has Implications for Future Campaigns

As politicians piggyback on new findings, upcoming campaigns may attempt to exploit brain differences with biological appeals to voters. That’s no surprise, and we’re seeing it already. When anxiety triggers a physical reaction, for example, it may transfer to political beliefs, such as hatred and prejudice toward a particular group.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers studied 138 men in Massachusetts by measuring their skin reactivity, first while watching relaxing beach images, then either an abstract screensaver or Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” scene, before they answered a survey about political beliefs. Those who watched two minutes of Stallone dangling on a rope expressed more anxiety physically—and higher anti-immigration attitudes.

“The anxiety we generated was powerful enough that people couldn’t simply turn it off,” said Jonathan Renshon, a political science professor. “It carried over to unrelated domains and actually influenced people’s political beliefs.”

Simply being angry and anxious could have tipped the polls in Donald Trump’s favor in 2016. Thanks, Science?

Top image: Liz West, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

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