Democrats And Republicans Use Different Brain Regions To Process Risk

By Sean Kane email: , Feb 14, 2013 01:03 PM EST

Democrats and Republicans process risk differently.

According to a new study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, Democrats and Republicans activate different regions of the brain while processing risk. The research shows that, in addition to genetics and parental influence, party affiliation changes the way our brains function.

Dr. Darren Schreiber, researcher at the University of Exeter, working with colleagues at UC San Diego, studied how brain functions differ in American liberals and conservatives. Schreiber measured participants' brain activity while they were playing a simple gambling game. The researchers then found the participants' party affiliations through political party registrations in public records.

While neither party took more risks than the other, the way they processed these risks was very different. Democrats taking risks showed more activity in the left insula of the brain, the area of the brain that handles social and self-awareness. Republicans showed greater activity in the right amygdala, the region associated with the fight-or-flight instinct.

The results were very significant, so much so that the researchers could predict party affiliation by brain activity in the region, with 82.9 percent accuracy. This is far more accurate than the 69.5 percent accuracy in the traditional political-science method that uses an individual's parents' affiliation. Another model that uses differences in brain structures has 71.6 percent accuracy.

"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 told Science Daily.

These results may help us understand the differences between how liberals and conservatives think. "The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science," said Schreiber.

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