Biology and political orientation

Biology and political orientation is a concept based on a number of studies that have found that biology can be linked with political orientation.[1] This means that biology is a possible factor in political orientation, but may also mean that the ideology a person identifies with changes a person's ability to perform certain tasks. Many of the studies linking biology to politics remain controversial and unreplicated. But the overall body of evidence is growing and might alter how people think about their own and others' political attitudes.[2]

Brain studies

Structural differences

Recent research points at substantial differences in the cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives on psychological measures.[3] For example, conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals.[4] Similarly, conservatives are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions.[5] Jost and colleagues posed that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty[3] A 2011 study by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai's group at University College London published in Current Biology, found a correlation between differences in political views and differences in brain structures in a convenience sample of students from University College London.[6] The researchers performed MRI scans on the brains of 90 volunteer students who had indicated their political orientation on a five-point scale ranging from "very liberal" to "very conservative".[6][7] Students who reported more "conservative" political views tended to have larger amygdalae,[6] a structure in the temporal lobes that performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotions. In addition, they found clusters in which gray matter volume was significantly associated with conservativism in the left insula and the right entorhinal cortex.[6] There is evidence that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust[8] and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust.[9] On the other hand, more 'liberal' students tended to have a larger volume of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex,[6] a structure of the brain associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information.[6][7] It is consistent with previous research suggesting that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.[10] The authors concluded that, "Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes."[6] In an interview with LiveScience, Ryota Kanai said, "It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions", and that, "more work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude."[1][7][11][12] Kanai and colleagues added that it is necessary to conduct a longitudinal study to determine whether the changes in brain structure that we observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.

Functional differences

A study by scientists at New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found differences in how self-described liberal and conservative research participants responded to changes in patterns.[13] Participants were asked to tap a keyboard when the letter "M" appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a "W". The letter "M" appeared four times more frequently than "W", conditioning participants to press the keyboard on almost every trial. Liberal participants made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw the rare "W", indicating to the researchers that these participants were better able to accept changes or conflicts in established patterns. The participants were also wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in their anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency and a more appropriate response. Liberals were significantly more likely than conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts during the experiment, and this correlated with their greater accuracy in the test. The lead author of the study, David Amodio, warned against concluding that a particular political orientation is superior. "The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information could be a good thing depending on the situation," he said.[14][15]

In an fMRI study published in Social Neuroscience, three different patterns of brain activation were found to correlate with individualism, conservatism, and radicalism.[16] In general, fMRI responses in several portions of the brain have been linked to viewing of the faces of well-known politicians.[17] Others believe that determining political affiliation from fMRI data is overreaching.[18]