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Born This Way: New Studies Show Conservatives Biologically Prone To Fear And Intolerance

by David Badash on February 15, 2013

in News,Politics

Post image for Born This Way: New Studies Show Conservatives Biologically Prone To Fear And Intolerance

Two new studies show that the brains of Republicans and Democrats are biologically different, and Republicans tend to be more fearful — or, rather, “fearful people are more conservative,” as one researcher observed.

“It is still considered highly uncool to ascribe a person’s political beliefs, even in part, to that person’s biology: hormones, physiological responses, even brain structures and genes. And no wonder: Doing so raises all kinds of thorny, non-PC issues involving free will, determinism, toleration, and much else,” a report today, “The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans,” by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones notes.

Adding that research shows “people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own,” Moody adds:

As [Rose McDermott of Brown University] carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” as she puts it.

Darren Schreiber, a political neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, first performed brain scans on 82 people participating in a risky gambling task, one in which holding out for more money increases your possible rewards, but also your possible losses. Later, cross-referencing the findings with the participants’ publicly available political party registration information, Schreiber noticed something astonishing: Republicans, when they took the same gambling risk, were activating a different part of the brain than Democrats.

Republicans were using the right amygdala, the center of the brain’s threat response system. Democrats, in contrast, were using the insula, involved in internal monitoring of one’s feelings. Amazingly, Schreiber and his colleagues write that this test predicted 82.9 percent of the study subjects’ political party choices—considerably better, they note, than a simple model that predicts your political party affiliation based on the affiliation of your parents.

I also interviewed Schreiber for The Republican Brain. He’s a scientist who was once quite cautious about the relevance of brain studies to people’s politics. As he put it to me: “If you had called me four years ago and said, ‘What is your view on whether Republicans and Democrats have different brains?’ I would have said no.” Now, his own published research suggests otherwise.

One again, though, there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the 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.

Does this mean we should accept intolerance and fear-mongering?

Absolutely not.

But it may mean liberals and progressives will need to find new ways to communicate issues with some conservatives. And that’s not a bad thing.


Image © by David Badash

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sfmobius February 16, 2013 at 12:12 am

Not surprising at all. We already know humans fear that which they don't understand so it's a logical progression.

Huntercgo February 16, 2013 at 6:49 am

The phrasing is critical — "more fearful people tend to be more conservative" is the most accurate rendering, and makes perfect sense when you think it through, particularly if you bring in the relationship of "cautious" to "conservative" in its basic sense — i.e., not willing to take risks. "Conservatives tend to be more fearful" is just snark.

But don't give up hope — there's always that brain plasticity thing to work with.

Coxhere February 16, 2013 at 7:53 am

Chris Mooney in Mother Jones notes: "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."

Can't we see the religious right and other homophobes using these two sentences to support their lies regarding reparative "therapy" changing sexual orientation and sexual identity? Homophobes especially love to use the term, "lifestyles." And Mooney uses it too!

DarrenSchreiber February 16, 2013 at 11:38 am

It's too bad that the headline you've given to the post misses the point of both the original research and Chris Mooney's reporting on it. The Red Brain, Blue Brain paper doesn't show people are "Born this Way." It actually lines up evidence that the brain differences we're observing are not caused by genetics. As we point out in the paper, genetics accounts for only 10% of the variance in political party and 40% of ideology. But the graphics for the piece are nice.

cipher February 19, 2013 at 8:18 am

But Dr. Schreiber, yours is just one study in a growing genre. Collectively, they are strongly suggestive of a neurological foundation for ideological orientation in general, fundamentalism/authoritarianism in particular.

LOrion February 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Must agree…this is not a BORN THIS WAY lesson, but a 'life lesson'… How what we 'learn' can affect our actual brain development. Many many factors go into an adults being 'afraid' to gamble. But the 'coincidence' that conservative gambling goes along with 'conservative' political phillosophy is probably significant as it is so very high. Science studies rarely reveal an 83% correlation.

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