Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

The Political Brain. Why do Republicans and Democrats differ? Perhaps it's all in the head.
New York Times Magazine ^ | August 22, 2004 | STEVEN JOHNSON

Posted on 08/21/2004 7:02:25 PM PDT by John Jorsett

A few months before retiring from public office in 2002, the House majority leader Dick Armey caused a mini-scandal when he announced during a speech in Florida, ''Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people.'' The former economics professor went on to clarify that liberals were drawn to ''occupations of the heart,'' while conservatives favored ''occupations of the brain,'' like economics or engineering.

The odd thing about Armey's statement was that it displayed a fuzzy, unscientific understanding of the brain itself: our most compassionate (or cowardly) feelings are as much a product of the brain as ''rational choice'' economic theory is. They just emanate from a different part of the brain -- most notably, the amygdala, the almond-shaped body that lies below the neocortex, in an older brain region sometimes called the limbic system. Studies of stroke victims, as well as scans of normal brains, have persuasively shown that the amygdala plays a key role in the creation of emotions like fear or empathy.

If amygdala activity is a reliable indication of emotional response, a fascinating possibility opens up: turning Armey's muddled poetry into a testable hypothesis. Do liberals ''think'' with their limbic system more than conservatives do? As it happens, some early research suggests that Armey might have been on to something after all.

As The Times reported not long ago, a team of U.C.L.A. researchers analyzed the neural activity of Republicans and Democrats as they viewed a series of images from campaign ads. And the early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a ''Democrat brain'' was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence: either the Bush ads that featured shots of a smoldering ground zero or the famous ''Daisy'' ad from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign that ends with a mushroom cloud. Such brain activity indicates a kind of gut response, operating below the level of conscious control.

Could the U.C.L.A. researchers be creating the political science of the future? Consider this possibility: the scientists do an exhaustive survey and it turns out that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It's a plausible outcome that matches some of our stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain.

What would that kind of insight tell us that we didn't know already? One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes. (Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome also show unusual patterns of amygdala activity, but those patterns are almost inevitably the imprint of a specific event, and not the long arm of DNA.)

Nonetheless, opening up the brain's black box might provide new explanations for how people become Republicans or Democrats, not to mention libertarians or Maoists, in the first place. It's pretty to think that we all decide our political affiliations by methodically studying each party's positions on the issues. But a recent study by Paul Goren at Arizona State found that voters typically formed their party affiliations before developing specific political values. They become Democrats first and then decide that they, say, oppose capital punishment and support trade unions. But how do they make that initial decision to be a Democrat? The most likely indicator of political preference is your parents' party affiliation, but if everyone simply voted along family lines, the dominant party would simply be the one whose members had the most voting offspring. The real question is why someone would ever break from the family tradition -- without feeling strongly either way about specific issues.

Those M.R.I. scans suggest an explanation. Perhaps we form political affiliations by semiconsciously detecting commonalities with other people, commonalities that ultimately reflect a shared pattern of brain function. In the mid-1960's, the social psychologist Donn Byrne conducted a series of experiments in which the participants were given a description of several hypothetical strangers' attitudes and beliefs. They were then asked which stranger they would most enjoy having as a co-worker. The subjects consistently preferred the company of strangers with attitudes similar to their own. Opposites repel.

Say you're inclined to form strong emotional responses to images of violence or human suffering, and over the course of your formative years, most of the people you meet who respond to these images with comparable affect turn out to be Democrats. That's a commonality of experience that exists beneath conscious political affiliation -- it's closer to a gut instinct than a rational choice -- but if you meet enough Democrats who share that experience, sooner or later you start carrying the card yourself. Political identity starts with a shared temperament and only afterward deposits a layer of positions on the issues.

Seeing political identity as a reflection of common brain architecture helps explain another longstanding riddle: why do people vote against their immediate interests? Why do blue-collar Republicans and limousine liberals exist? The question becomes less puzzling if you assume that 1) people choose parties primarily because they desire the companionship of people who share their cognitive wiring, and 2) they desire that companionship so much they're willing to pay for the privilege.

These are all hypotheses now, and indeed it may turn out that some other region of the brain plays a more important role in creating political values. But if the U.C.L.A. results hold water over time, it won't justify the Armey theory that liberals are somehow less rational than conservatives. One of the most celebrated insights of the past 20 years of neuroscience is the discovery -- largely associated with the work of Antonio Damasio -- that the brain's emotional systems are critical to logical decision-making. People who suffer from damaged or impaired emotional systems can score well on logic tests but often display markedly irrational behavior in everyday life. Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in ''Rain Man'' was brilliant with numbers, but you wouldn't necessarily want him in the White House.

Is there something intrinsically reductive or fatalistic in connecting political values to brain functioning? No more so than ascribing them to race or economic background, which we happily do without second thought. Isn't it more dehumanizing to attribute your beliefs to economic conditions outside your control? At least your brain is inalienably yours -- it's where the whole category ''you'' originates. No one denies that social conditions shape political values. But the link between the brain and the polis is still uncharted terrain. Prozac showed us that the slightest tinkering with brain chemistry could have transformative effects on a person's worldview. Who is to say those effects don't travel all the way to the voting booth?


TOPICS: Editorial
KEYWORDS: brain; cognition; psychology; science

1 posted on 08/21/2004 7:02:25 PM PDT by John Jorsett
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

Bookmark for reading when I'm awake.


2 posted on 08/21/2004 7:04:16 PM PDT by gitmo (Thanks, Mel. I needed that.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
Sounds like craniology to me.
3 posted on 08/21/2004 7:05:01 PM PDT by Jason Kauppinen
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
the amygdala, the almond-shaped body that lies below the neocortex, in an older brain region sometimes called the limbic system.

Do liberals ''think'' with their limbic system more than conservatives do?

Tell me how you FEEEEEEEL.

4 posted on 08/21/2004 7:08:19 PM PDT by bikepacker67 (Sandy wasn't stuffing his socks, he was stuffing A sock.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
They become Democrats first and then decide that they, say, oppose capital punishment and support trade unions.

Another take on this is that the Left is about claiming power. So those involved in it, in direct relation to their level of involvement, will base their views on an issue on whatever will increase their, or their ally's, power. Probably the greatest evidence of this is the almost random seeming stances adopted by leftwing politics.
5 posted on 08/21/2004 7:08:57 PM PDT by swilhelm73 (I WILL VOTE FOR GEORGE W. BUSH INSTEAD OF JOHN KERRY because I still believe in the rule of law)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
A few months before retiring from public office in 2002, the House majority leader Dick Armey caused a mini-scandal when he announced during a speech in Florida, "Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people."

Oh, that's a real scandal...especially after Liberals have been referring to Republican voters and candidates as "stupid" for the past 5 decades.

6 posted on 08/21/2004 7:09:08 PM PDT by Prime Choice (Democrats. They want to have their cake and eat yours too.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes.

Merely an indication that the damage done by public schools and depraved media is physical. Were I a Democrat, I would sue.

7 posted on 08/21/2004 7:09:54 PM PDT by Carry_Okie (There are people in power who are truly stupid.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

It still would not explain why so many peoples positions change over the course of their lives. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that certain physiological differences contribute to differing political viewpoints. It probably explains why liberals are whining and crying all the time.


8 posted on 08/21/2004 7:11:30 PM PDT by speedy
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Prime Choice

Guess it would have been better if he called them nazi's like we are constantly being called.


9 posted on 08/21/2004 7:12:58 PM PDT by OldFriend (WAR IS THE REMEDY OUR ENEMIES HAVE CHOSEN)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: bikepacker67
"Do liberals ''think'' with their limbic system more than conservatives do?"
The science of liberalology has firmly established that liberals do most of their "thinking" with lower parts of their gastric systems and/or urogenital tract.
10 posted on 08/21/2004 7:14:25 PM PDT by GSlob
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: gitmo
Bookmark for reading when I'm awake.

Why? You'll fall back asleep within seconds. However, I did find the final sentence telling, at least about Dims:

Prozac showed us that the slightest tinkering with brain chemistry could have transformative effects on a person's worldview. Who is to say those effects don't travel all the way to the voting booth?

So that's what make Dims tick.

11 posted on 08/21/2004 7:15:50 PM PDT by buzzyboop (no tags, no fuss)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

Demonrats react subjectively, using emotions as their guiding light, making them oh so effiminate. "I will conduct a more "thoughtful", more "sensitive" war on terror", by forcing our military to wear pink uniforms.

Republicans on the whole (except RINOS) react objectively, using logic, reason, and common sense, not allowing emotions to cloud their thought process in reaching a conclusion.


12 posted on 08/21/2004 7:16:13 PM PDT by Iam1ru1-2
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: OldFriend
Guess it would have been better if he called them nazi's like we are constantly being called.

Considering that Kerry is calling on Bush to silence dissenters who don't like Kerry and is also calling on publishers to withdraw books that tell the truth about Kerry, I'd say the Nazi label fits the Liberals far better than our side.

13 posted on 08/21/2004 7:16:28 PM PDT by Prime Choice (Democrats. They want to have their cake and eat yours too.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

Bookmark for later when sufficiently drunk.


14 posted on 08/21/2004 7:16:49 PM PDT by mlbford2 (In TX, orange alert means releasing the safety on your shotgun)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

I question these findings. They didn't include bringing a proctologist in prior to the examination of Democrats brains.


15 posted on 08/21/2004 7:17:45 PM PDT by Brytani (A changing mind is a terrible thing to waste - Vote John Kerry)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: speedy

My wife was a Democrat when I met her. I was a Moderate Conservative. Now, 7yrs later, she is a raving, right wing nut and I'm still a MC.


16 posted on 08/21/2004 7:18:39 PM PDT by mlbford2 (In TX, orange alert means releasing the safety on your shotgun)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Prime Choice

Now the demonrats are calling President Bush a premeditated murderer by saying he knew that the WTC buildings were going to be bombed and allowed it to happen. So whatever the GOP say, it will NEVER COME CLOSE TO THE demonrats have spewed with their venomous rhetoric.


17 posted on 08/21/2004 7:19:42 PM PDT by Iam1ru1-2
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: mlbford2
Bookmark for later when sufficiently drunk.

You better catch up! ;-)

18 posted on 08/21/2004 7:20:05 PM PDT by bikepacker67 (Sandy wasn't stuffing his socks, he was stuffing A sock.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

To: buzzyboop

Republicans take Prozac, demonrats take Progesterone.


19 posted on 08/21/2004 7:21:41 PM PDT by Iam1ru1-2
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 11 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

No, Dick Armey was correct. Libs are not very bright.


20 posted on 08/21/2004 7:22:38 PM PDT by austingirl
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: mlbford2

Hee hee. My wife was a liberal, Carter-loving feminist reporter when we met. I was always on the reactionary wing of the Republican Party, inherited from my parents. Without the least prodding from me, she has now surpassed me to starboard, is active in pro-life causes, loves Bush and won't allow a New York Times within the walls of our home. Who says there is no such thing as progress?


21 posted on 08/21/2004 7:26:02 PM PDT by speedy
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 16 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
So if I understand this, if you are capable of thinking and understanding why the world works the way it does you will listen to talk radio where ideas are discussed and organized in a coherent fashion. Otherwise you will hate George Bush and talk radio but will be completely incapable of articulating a reason why.
22 posted on 08/21/2004 7:29:22 PM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP (Make all taxes truly voluntary)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

"The odd thing about Armey's statement was that it displayed a fuzzy, unscientific understanding of the brain itself"

The odd thing about this statement is that it displays a fuzzy, unimaginative understanding of language. I don't think Mr. Armey literally believes feelings orginate in the heart. Those of us with a level of reading comprehension above kindergarten understand the concept of "figure of speech".

"stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain."

Does anyone have any doubts whatsoever about the beliefs of the writer of this article?


23 posted on 08/21/2004 7:31:00 PM PDT by HarryCaul
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
Liberals don't think so much as assimilate positions that allow them to feel emotionally valid. This emotional validity which is endorphins driven is reinforced by positive reinforcement by the group. Tight control of the liberal mind is needed because the intensity of the feeling of emotional validity is proportionate to the lack of contradictory interference within the group.

Another important factor in the brainwashing is demonization of the outsider, that is the advocate for the contrary position of that assimilated by the group. This person is pulling the liberal out of that place of emotional validity and is causing relative pain ( endorphins drop ).

This would be your "educated" liberal. There are others who vote for Democrats based on an overpowering desire to advance a specific agenda that aren't necessarily a part of the validation group.
24 posted on 08/21/2004 9:39:46 PM PDT by Jim_Curtis (Liberals lie at the premise, accept their premise and you can only lose the argument.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

rm strong emotional responses to images of violence or human suffering>>

Apparently these amygdalas in leftist go inactive when viewing imagesof violence and human suffering when it comes to unborn infants.

I wonder if they realize all they did is prove what conservatives have always said--leftists are immature and primitive in their thinking. My guess is a child's amygdala works similarly. They act on gut feelings with no impulse control. So leftists are essentially on the same playing field as children. Why am I not surprised?


25 posted on 08/21/2004 9:53:57 PM PDT by cupcakes
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

Bump to read later.


26 posted on 08/21/2004 10:30:30 PM PDT by conservative cat
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett
Freeper N. Theknow says:
"It’s faster than a checkbook, more powerful than a Democratic demagogue, able to lay waste to a liar Kerry with the single click of a mouse. It's a little bird of truth, it's plain to see Kerry's unfit... it's... it's...SuperFReep!

Want to join in the fun? Click the logo to donate to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth!

27 posted on 08/22/2004 6:59:55 AM PDT by Chieftain (Support the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and expose Hanoi John's FRAUD!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

A case for genetic engineering ...


28 posted on 08/22/2004 7:04:37 AM PDT by BunnySlippers (Must get moose and squirrel ... B. Badanov)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

I wasn't aware that liberal-demokkkRATs had any measurable brain matter, to speak of. The few who I know, don't.


29 posted on 08/22/2004 7:06:37 AM PDT by 7.62 x 51mm ( Veni Vidi Vino Visa "I came, I saw, I drank wine, I shopped")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

This is your brain.


This is your brain after reading the New York Times editorial page.

Any questions?

30 posted on 08/22/2004 7:16:17 AM PDT by andy58-in-nh
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

Talking about feeling, etc. Leftists see themselves as victims and thrive in it. On another board I saw how the Leftists, before the Iraq war, always reminisced about the "good ole days" after 9/11 when the world supposedly loved us. Sickening.


31 posted on 08/22/2004 7:21:26 AM PDT by mikegi
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: mikegi
On another board I saw how the Leftists, before the Iraq war, always reminisced about the "good ole days" after 9/11 when the world supposedly loved us.

They loved us because they thought we were "victims." They thought we'd sit cowering in a corner while we contemplated why we'd pissed off the world. When it became apparent that we we were going to fight back, and hard, that's when their love vanished. That kind of love we don't need.

32 posted on 08/22/2004 7:37:24 AM PDT by John Jorsett
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 31 | View Replies]

To: Brytani

Excellent!!!!!!!
Reminds me of when darling Katie Couric did a show with her having a colonoscopy 'on camera.' One astute Freeper remarked as to whether or not they found her head or not.....


33 posted on 08/22/2004 7:42:17 AM PDT by Gaffer
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 15 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

bump


34 posted on 08/22/2004 7:45:59 AM PDT by VOA
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Prime Choice
I am posting on every thread the reminder that Teresa Heinz attended a Moveon.org rally with a large button on her jacket......it said....ASSES OF EVIL with a picture of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld around the edge of the button.

Imagine if Laura Bush began appearing at Swift Boat Vets for Truth rallies!

35 posted on 08/22/2004 9:07:44 AM PDT by OldFriend (WAR IS THE REMEDY OUR ENEMIES HAVE CHOSEN)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: John Jorsett

The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by instinct...Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator and writer (106-43 BCE)


36 posted on 08/23/2004 5:17:48 AM PDT by shrinkermd
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: swilhelm73
Another take on this is that the Left is about claiming power.

Except the voters want to be protected and mothered. The voters want the government to take care and provide for them.

37 posted on 08/23/2004 5:25:31 AM PDT by FITZ
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: shrinkermd

Your maxim is no longer true. What passes for reason these days is often nothing of the sort. In this postmodern paradise, truth is declared, not discovered, and reason is little more than a label to make stupidity sound better.


38 posted on 08/23/2004 11:28:20 AM PDT by Dataman
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 36 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson