Ten Miles Square


February 20, 2013 10:49 AM Republican Brain Smash Risk

By Seth Masket

Republicans and Democrats don’t just think differently, they actually use their brains differently:

We explore differences in brain function in liberals and conservatives by matching publicly-available voter records to 82 subjects who performed a risk-taking task during functional imaging. Although the risk-taking behavior of Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives) did not differ, their brain activity did. Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala. In fact, a two parameter model of partisanship based on amygdala and insula activations yields a better fitting model of partisanship than a well-established model based on parental socialization of party identification long thought to be one of the core findings of political science. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.

That’s from “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans,” by Darren Schreiber, Greg Fonzo, Alan N. Simmons, Christopher T. Dawes, Taru Flagan, James H. Fowler, and Martin P. Paulus. Just to be clear, the finding is that Democrats tend to use the insula, which is used in the monitoring of one’s internal feelings, when assessing risk, while Republicans tend to use the amygdala, which is the brain’s threat response center, for the same task.

Chris Mooney explains the causality involved:

Current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.


  • Rick B on February 20, 2013 8:56 PM:

    Interesting article. And Chris Mooney's comment explains why previously sensible people who join conservative groups seem to go insane. It's the plasticity of the brain.

    If you are surrounded by frightened people the Amygdala will get a workout and expand its actions. If you are surrounded by people who calculate risk cognitively then you will do that instead.

    Conservative schools will train the amygdala.

  • toowearyforoutrage on March 25, 2013 3:07 PM:

    The article says we address risk with "feelings".

    That isn't typically what we think of as "cognitive".

    That said, it suggests more flexibility in response than a "threat" response which suggests to ME two possibilities: fight and flight.

    The liberals can incorporate empathy where conservatives want the problem solved quickly and to destroy the problem. I suppose "subdue" is another possibility. It provides a sense of urgency. It may limit the amount if time a conservative is willing to dedicate to a problem. This seems to mirror the near constant panic level of the radio pundits and Fox news coverage of events.

    Conservatives accuse liberals of "dithering". If the risk to be taken doesn't require haste, I suppose that can be very frustrating for our crimson countrymen.

    It's amusing when conservatives want to "slow the process down". It's often in response to Democrats finally reaching that decision and having constructed compelling arguments and garnering strong public support. When THAT happens, it's time for conservatives to PANIC. So their call for calm is actually their emergency response! MG! We have to stop them! Let's accuse them of rushing things!

    Fits, doesn't it?