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Red Versus Blue Brain: Neuropolitics

Political orientation affects neural activity and cognitive performance.

Thinking styles sculpt brain architecture in various ways. One major dichotomy in thinking style is conservatism versus liberalism. Conservatives tend to be less tolerant of uncertainty and change, whereas liberals tend to have a higher tolerance for ambiguous events. Decades of research have revealed the relationship between political ideology, thinking styles, and related brain differences.

Jost and colleagues developed a parsimonious model to integrate the mounting evidence related to political ideology’s effects on the processing of ambiguity, namely, the uncertainty-threat model of conservatism (1). The model asserts that “several specific motives relating to the management of fear and uncertainty are associated with the ideology of political conservatism” (p. 366).

The tenets of the model are twofold: uncertainty and threat avoidance. People vary in the extent to which they tolerate ambiguity. Personality factors such as openness to experience—which is associated with intellectual curiosity, creativity, and flexibility (2)—is negatively associated with uncertainty avoidance. In other words, the more flexible, open, and curious a person is, the more they tolerate ambiguity.

Individual differences in intolerance to uncertainty have been associated for decades with conservative ideology (3,4,5). In a meta-analysis combining studies from 12 countries between 1958 and 2002, conservatism was positively related to uncertainty avoidance, intolerance of ambiguity, and needs for order, structure, and closure. By contrast, conservative attitudes were negatively associated with openness to experience (1). It is not surprising that conservatives tend to also be more dogmatic, close-minded (1), and more likely to support censorship (6).

Political orientation colors how we see the world. Conservatives tend to view the world as a more dangerous place than liberals (1,5). By extension, the more the world is perceived as unsafe, the more people endorse conservative opinions. Many studies have demonstrated that reminders of death tend to push opinions to the right even among liberal college students. Many analyses showed a positive relationship between reminders of mortality and voting for President George W. Bush (7,8). Both avoidance of uncertainty and threat independently and significantly contribute to conservatism, explaining almost one-third of the variance in political attitudes (5).

Conservatives and liberals interact with groups and address their members’ welfare differently (9). Conservatism is avoidance based: focused on preventing societal losses. It accomplishes that by regulations, restrictions, and inhibitions. Liberalism is approach based: It is focused on positivity and societal gains and thus regulates via interventions as opposed to tight restrictions. Furthermore, conservatives are concerned with marking clear inter-group boundaries, whereas liberals focus on intragroup variability and interdependence (9). Thus, leadership style would starkly differ depending on political orientation.

Brain activity has also been related to political attitudes. Conservatives are more structured and habitual in their decision making and cognitive performance. Liberals have a higher tolerance for cognitive tasks that require novelty, complexity, and creativity. The brain’s electrical signature for monitoring errors on trials that require withholding a habitual response, called the error-related negativity (ERN), was related to political orientation (10). Larger ERN brain waveform amplitude was associated with better performance on non-habitual trials. Liberalism was significantly correlated with greater ERN when inhibiting habitual responses were required. Thus, when the task challenges habitual ways of thinking, liberals tend to outperform conservatives. The enhancement in performance on tasks requiring inhibiting old ways results from the potential brain differences in error calculations in liberals and conservatives. The error brain epicenter is the anterior cingulate cortex, from which ERN is elicited. Accordingly, an fMRI study found that greater liberalism was associated with a larger anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting an enhanced error detection system (11).

Brain studies also support the tendency of conservatives to avoid uncertainty and threat. The amygdala is a critical brain structure implicated in threat and fear processing. A functional neuroimaging study conducted on Japanese and American subjects showed that amygdala activation is related to voting behaviors regardless of the person’s culture (12). In another fMRI study, amygdala volume was positively correlated with conservatism (11). In other words, the most conservative subjects were likely to have the largest amygdala volumes. Research has also clearly demonstrated that individuals with large amygdala tend to be more sensitive to fear and threat (13). These neuroimaging findings are consistent with the tendency of conservatives to avoid uncertainty and threat.

Today's world is saturated with uncertainty. Ambiguous situations tend to push voters to the right. At the same time, we are faced with unprecedented issues that require flexibility and openness, which is more characteristic of liberals. Will voters be more influenced by situational factors such as current uncertainty or leadership style required to solve novel problems? Only time will tell.


(1) Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

(2) Costa, P. T., McCrae, R. R., & Dye, D. A. (1991). Facet scales for agreeableness and conscientiousness: A revision of the NEO Personality Inventory. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 887-898.

(3) Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1949). Intolerance of ambiguity as an emotional and perceptual personality variable. Journal of Personality, 18, 108-143.

(4) Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (1954). Social tensions and the inhibitions of thought. Social Problems, 2, 75-81.

(5) Jost, J. T. (2006). The end of the end of ideology. American Psychologist, 61, 651-670.

(6) Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30, 29-50.

(7) Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., & Arndt, J. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1136-1150.

(8) Cohen, F., Ogilvie, D. M., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2005). American roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 177-187.

(9) Janoff-Bulman, R. (2009). To provide or protect: motivational bases of political liberalism and conservatism. Psychol. Inq. 20, 120–128.

(10) Amodio, D. M., Jost, J. T., Master, S. L. & Yee,C .M. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nat. Neurosci. 10, 1246–1247.

(11) Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C. & Rees, G. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Curr. Biol.21, 677–680 .

(12) Rule, N.O., Freeman, J.B., Moran, J.M., Gabrieli, J.D.E., Adams, R.B., Jr., and Ambady, N. (2010). Voting behavior is reflected in amygdala response across cultures. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 5, 349–355.

(13) van der Plas, E.A.A., Boes, A.D., Wemmie, J.A., Tranel, D., and Nopoulos, P. (2010). Amygdala volume correlates positively with fearful- ness in normal healthy girls. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 5, 424–431.

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