Political Decision-Making, Part One

After all the physics and space stuff I have been posting lately, I figured that a diversion would be good.  And what better to talk about (and potentially ramp up some page views) than politics!  Specifically, about how people make political decisions.

For a long time, the assumption was that voters made rational decisions after consulting the data and reviewing the candidates and the issues they were voting on.  Research in the past few years has changed that perception.  I will just briefly summarize the research as there is not room here for extremely thorough analysis.  Also, I’m not choosing sides on anything; we are just looking at how people make their political decisions.  Here is part one of this series.  I honestly have no idea how long this particular series will be, but lets run with it!  In this post, we’ll look at the structure of the brain itself.

The Shape of the Brain

Researchers have uncovered a link between the size of certain areas of the brain and a person’s political beliefs.  To lead off, scientists don’t understand the link yet.  There is correlation, but they don’t know if one causes the other or there is perhaps some unknown cause for both.

Basically, studies are indicating that liberals have a bigger area in the cortex (the outer layer of your brain with all the folds), specifically the anterior cingulate cortex, and conservatives have larger amygdalas (two structures in the middle of brain).  The Discover magazine blog post covers the studies in greater detail if you’d like to check them out.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is used in conflict and error processing, and potentially in rewards from processing the errors.  It also seems to play roles in emotion, awareness, and pain processing.  I’m going to quote Andrea Kuszewski, author of that Discover blog post, because she phrased it better than I possibly could: “When there is a flow of ambiguous information, the ACC helps to discern whether the bits of info are relevant or not, and assigns them value. . . . The ACC helps to decide which patterns are worth investigating and which ones are just noise.”

The amygdala, on the other hand, plays a big role in sorting and storing memories associated with emotional events, both positive and negative.  To quote Andrea Kuszewski again, “Persons with a larger or more active amygdala tend to have stronger emotional reactions to objects and events, and process information initially through that pathway. They would be more likely swayed towards a belief if it touched them on an emotional level.”

Basically, this boils down to two different styles of thinking between conservatives and liberals.  You could say that it means that liberals tend to use reason and conservatives tend to use emotion.  I think it highlights some tendencies between the two very different groups, but I doubt that it explains all the differences between conservatives and liberals.  People still have choices and politics is still the choice of one issue or candidate over another.  People consistently vote against their interests; I see no reason why people wouldn’t vote against their inclinations if they saw a reason to.

It still is fascinating to see these glimpses and begin to understand how our brain works.  And clearly, our political thinking might not be something that we have as much control over as we’d like to think.

3 thoughts on “Political Decision-Making, Part One

  1. hey! Neuroscientist here: hate to be a downer but while it’s tempting to say that ‘this area of the brain does X’, in reality, we don’t know much about areas of the human brain, but there’s a lot more evidence to say that all areas of our brains do most things and the anatomical differences between brains don’t mean much, if anything.

    This idea that brain area size is correlated with differences in behavior is a hold-over from the age of phrenology (the bumps on your head indicate if you’re caring or smart or good at sports). Although it’s a temptingly simple explanation, it’s not supported by facts.

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