13 February 2013

Republicans' brains wired for fight-or-flight

by Will Parker

Measuring the brain activity of Republicans and Democrats while they played a game has revealed striking differences in each group's cognitive functioning. The findings, appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, are the result of collaborative research by neuroscientists from the University of Exeter and the University of California, San Diego. They suggest that being a Republican or Democrat changes how the brain functions.

The experiment used brain activity data taken from 82 subjects while they played a simple gambling game. Exeter's Dr. Darren Schreiber said that while Republicans and Democrats do not differ in the risks they take, there were "striking differences in the participants' brain activity during the risk-taking task."

Specifically, the Democrats showed much greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness. Meanwhile Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body's fight-or-flight system. The results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk.

The researchers say that such brain activity profiles can be used to predict whether a person is a Democrat or Republican with 83 percent accuracy. By comparison, the longstanding traditional model in political science, which uses the party affiliation of a person's mother and father to predict the child's affiliation, is only accurate about 70 percent of the time.

The model also outperforms models based on differences in genes. "Although genetics have been shown to contribute to differences in political ideology and strength of party politics, the portion of variation in political affiliation explained by activity in the amygdala and insula is significantly larger, suggesting that affiliating with a political party and engaging in a partisan environment may alter the brain, above and beyond the effect of heredity," Schreiber said.

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Source: University of Exeter