Even when you vote with your heart, you’re voting with your brain

I’m a fan of Colin Firth. I wouldn’t say my panties drop in his presence, but I can’t seem to locate them at the moment. So, take that as you will. Now take a little Colin Firth, add a side dash of science, and you have today’s moment of geek. Colin Firth is no scientist, but he is credited as a co-author of a paper published in Current Biology: Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.

This particular paper got its start when Colin Firth was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” He decided he wanted to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different in any physiological way. It would be Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London who would experiment to find the answer.

The two performed MRI scans on 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. What they found was consistent with previous studies showing physical differences between political sides. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants.

What does this result mean? Well, one of the jobs of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger anterior cingulate cortex have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.” The amygdala, however, processes fear, and previous studies have shown that conservatives respond more aggressively in threatening situations. The researchers say “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty.”

What is still unknown is which comes first, the brain structure or the beliefs. That answer would require a far more expansive study. This does seem to show why, despite a perceived larger population of liberals in the US, the country still seems to skew right. Liberals vote in their blogs and Conservatives vote with their feet. Reactionary groups like the Tea Party are probably a good example of this. Even the use of language bears this out. One group yells “things should be better.” The other group yells “you’re destroying what we have.”

This isn’t the place for it, but someday I’ll write about why the extreme left and the extreme right are two sides to the same coin, and the members tend to be interchangeable in different phases of their lives. This post was not meant to be political (I don’t think I’ve chastised or praised any political parties). It was meant to show some brain science. 

Sources: Smithsonian Blog, Current Biology

Scroll to Top