The neurobiology of politics

What, if anything, should we make of studies that purport to find neurological differences between people who self-identify as "conservative" and people who self-identify as "liberal?" You've seen studies like that in the paper. You've heard them argued about on radio and TV shows. But what do they actually mean? Is this just so much high-tech phrenology? Is it a smug way for one group to make snide commentary about the other group under the guise of "science?" Is your political affiliation determined by your mind, or by your brain?

Behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski has a great guest post up at The Intersection blog, looking at what we can (and can't) learn from the handful of studies that have attempted to link politics and neurobiology. None of these studies have been perfectly well-done, she writes. But, despite being flawed in different ways, they're coming to some of the same conclusions—conservatives seem to have a more active amygdala and liberals seem to have a more active anterior cingulate cortex. You can shorten that into a headline-grabbing statement about conservatives being driven more by emotions and liberals by logic. But it's really, really not as simple as that.

If you're going to talk about these studies at all, Kuszewski writes, you're going to have to understand the context behind them. In other words: This is an issue chock full of yesbuts. And, without them, you're going to come to some very wrong conclusions.

This is definitely a story worth reading all the way through. It is, however, a difficult story to excerpt ... at least, without committing the very sins the article is meant to correct. But out of all the yesbuts Kuszewski identifies, I'd like to highlight this one, in particular, because I think it's often overlooked in many popular discussions of neurobiology and culture.

1. The brain is plastic. Meaning, every time we engage in any activity, our brain changes somewhat, even if only to a very small degree. In fact, your brain is a little bit different right now than when you started reading this article. And a little different now. Engaging in any activity excessively or intensely over a long period of time changes your brain even more—such as training for a sport or spending a long time practicing and becoming proficient at a skill. Conversely, if you stop using an area of your brain to a significant degree, it will probably shrink in size due to lack of connectivity, similar to the atrophy of muscles. When it comes to the brain areas measured in these studies, we aren’t sure how much of the difference was there to begin with, or to what degree the brain changed as a function of being in a particular political party. I suspect both things contribute somewhat. How much? We have no way of knowing at this point. To say conclusively, we need a longitudinal study, with control groups, measuring brain volume before and after joining, leaving, or participating in a political party’s activities or ideologies.


  1. To me, the key visceral disagreement between conservatives and liberals has always been in the groups each is most likely to identify as ‘evil’. For liberals it is “the powerful” and for conservatives it is “the weird”.

    Don’t know what neurobiological conclusions, if any, can be drawn from that.

    And I guess “evil” is just another way of calling things we are most uncomfortable with…

    1. to paraphrase a wise old muppet: what we do not understand we fear, what we fear we hate, what we hate we destroy.

      Sadly, the world is so awash with (dis)information these days that trying to grasp it all is a dedicated lifetime pursuit.

      1. “Thanks for Playing Though”! That’s what a talk radio guy would say, but you might try “keep drinking the kool-aid” or call him a “sheeple”, turn the discussion to some guy Obama knew in college who has tires to ACORN, or whatever they are doing on talk radio this year.

  2. Funny thing about the article’s definition of liberals valuing change, conservatives valuing stability. That’s pretty much the opposite of what liberal politicians, and many liberal writers, claim – at least now, at least in America. What I mean is that liberals portray themselves as attempting to hold on to stability, to the policies to which we’ve become accustomed, and they portray conservatives as trying to tear things down, to try unproven policies, to be ‘radical.’ 

    And I’m a liberal, and I feel this way, too, which is weird, but it probably just means that we need a rule of thumb different from just change/stability = liberal/conservative. After all, two people can look at the same thing and one can call it a newfangled experiment, the other an established value. I know you can do that with the welfare state, feminism, or high-fructose corn syrup.

    1. I think the weirdness comes from the misrepresentation of ‘change’ as a value, instead of a means.

      In the early-to-mid 20th century, progressives were trying to change policies and social organization. After some moderate success, in the mid-to-late 20th century (and to now) the conservatives started trying in earnest to roll back those policies and ways of thinking.

      At no point that I’m aware of did either mindset see change as their goal. It was the necessary method of achieving those specific goals.

    2. what to keep in mind is that there now are both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. The first are quite willing to have change for change’s sake, while the latter is not content with keeping the status quo but wants to return to some kind of mythical golden age (likely whenever they where kids playing in a yard while dad was at work and mom was baking bread and cookies).

  3. I have always found Conservatives paternalistic with strong tendencies towards codependence and fear of abandonment. But that still doesn’t answer it all.

    I have a family member who is disturbingly Conservative to the point I have had to cut them off to keep my own sanity. And this member’s main complaint always centers around lack of perceived (key word) attention/respect, when real world evidence bears out the reality that everyone this person complains about gives them more attention/respect than they are acknowledging. And as an adult I am starting to realize that the “transmissions” of attention/respect are clearly there, but the “radio receiver” in this person’s head is not connecting the dots even when it’s explained. The horrific “Catch-22” is nobody can ever explain to this family member that they are misinterpreting things or not receiving information correctly. Part of me believes there is an aspect of resentment to this; if this person accepts the diagnosis from someone else, this means said person is weak and the other is strong, and the other one who is strong is a threat so why bother?  But honestly I still don’t get it.

    What I do know is every “Liberal” person I have met is happier than every “Conservative” person I have met. And I no longer have the strength to debate issues with people who make me miserable.

  4. Today’s “Conservatives” are not conservatives at all – they are authoritarians. As I keep trying to tell people, the Republicans are no longer a political party, they are an authoritarian movement (or a cult as Mike Lofgren recently put it). . This is something very different. As such, they should be viewed through this lens, rather than the traditional left/right opinion bias. The work of Robert Altemeyer is particularly relevant here.Wikipedia has an entry on Right-Wing Authoritarianism here:…Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarianism can be downloaded for free here:…While he is a bit reserved about making a biological connection with RWA, I believe there is a stong biological/genetic component to it. It seems to be connected to religious belief. The connection between following orders and submission to religious authority seems to go back all the way to the beginnings of civilization. Most likely societies with high levels of RWA citizens were more effectively able to conquer their more peaceful neighbors and spred their genes.

  5. @google-da150a67776fe605fb0b4bcf95d60d00:disqus I agree…I find the science fascinating, but I’m not entirely on board with the conclusions. Conservatives tend to be perfectly fine with change in a particular *direction*, and liberals tend to not be okay with change in that same direction. So, while I think the perception conclusions are clear, I’m not buying that the split is along the lines of “change” vs “stability”

    There was another story a few years ago ( at )that I thought had a much better take: it isn’t change/stability that’s the difference, the two groups focus their values in different directions: conservatives placed higher value on the group over the individual (the groups they perceived themselves to be a part of, anyway), while liberals tended to place higher value on the individual than on any group they were a part of.

    That at least partly explains why the liberal complaints of “they’re voting against their own interests” go nowhere. Conservative voters that are “voting against their own interests” know they’re doing it, and are doing it intentionally, since the group is more important than the individual.

  6. Speaking as a reactionary crackpot, I’ve noticed something about the psychological tests that purport to measure conservatism. They have little correlation with my opinions. For that matter, they have little correlation with the opinions of Instapundit or even the columnists at National Review Online. I might accept that the psychologists have discovered something (although the sample sizes are frequently pitiful) but it has little to do with conservative ideas. (Maybe they’ve found something about illiterates.)

  7. Are the assumptions of a semi-arbitrary, historically local one-dimensional schema for framing the self-reporting of subjects, and the usefulness of a generalized definition for a differently interpreted and changing social phenomenon, in there anywhere?

  8. The correct definition of the Political terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” apply to the upper tier of the three Branches of the US Government and refer to the interpretation of the Constitution. Conservatives believe in a “conservative” (meaning non-interpretive) use of the Constitution while Liberals believe that the meaning of the Constitution can be “liberally” or more broadly interpreted according to the times.

    Common (and incorrect) usage in media is really more about the sphere in which people are willing to inflict upon others their authoritarianism. So called Conservatives want people to not be so “weird” (as was pointed out) while the ability to work and raise their family is not infringed, while many civillian Liberals want to control how other people run their private businesses and how they raise their children, while letting so-called moral issues run freely. 

    True libertarians reject both stances. Why would you want to control someone else?

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