25 November 2014

Politics and Physiology Addendum

Last Friday’s blog post, Innate Political Partisanship, highlighted two studies that suggest the potential for political partisanship is physiological. To reach that conclusion, the researchers employed measurements of electrodermal activity, eye tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

As you’d expect, there have been other approaches to investigating the potential link. Today, I’ll do a drive-by review of some you might find of interest. All compared results with test participants’ self-reported personality or sociopolitical assessments.

Friday’s two studies and those featured here cite numerous references should you wish to pursue the topic further.


A survey of a broad sample of adults was key to documenting a positive correlation between disgust sensitivity (predisposition to feel disgust) and more conservative political attitudes, especially on morality issues. The report appeared in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2009.

OK, so it’s a baby. It’s still an expression of disgust. (Photo from hotmeme.net/memegenerator/14821/disgusted-baby/)

Monitoring and Inventory 

A study published in Political Psychology in 2008 monitored participants’ nonverbal behavior during interactions with two conversation partners and inventoried their personal possessions and living and working spaces.

Two traits--openness to new experiences and conscientiousness--captured many of the ways that political orientation differences have been conceptualized. In general, liberals were more open-minded, creative, curious and novelty seeking; conservatives were more orderly, conventional and better organized.

Well, at least the shelves in this office seem organized. And maybe some of the piles too. (Photo from my Reading Photo Addendum of 13 Sep 2011.)
Computer Game

A study reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009 had participants play a computer game that required learning whether novel stimuli produced positive or negative outcomes.

Political ideology correlated with exploration and sampling of the stimuli during the game. More conservative participants were less open, sampling fewer targets than liberals, and they learned better from negative stimuli than from positive stimuli.

Test participants weren’t this young, but nowadays, babies are probably more familiar with computers than many adults. (Photo from multiple websites.)

Although I lack details of the findings of a 2011 report in the Journal of Politics, the work checked the box of another approach. The investigators conducted a genome-wide analysis of conservative-liberal attitudes from the DNA of 13,000 respondents. They noted that several significant linkage peaks and potential candidate genes were identified.

Our DNA may indeed influence how we vote. (Photo from thehoopla.com.au/vote-dna/)

A 2007 paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience described research that recorded electroencephalographs of test participants during a Go/No-Go task. They found greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, which suggests that liberals have greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern. In short, if you accept that interpretation, conservatives would be more likely to continue a habitual response even if indicators signal change is needed.

Electroencephalograph measurements but from an unrelated research investigation. (Photo from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120912161554.htm)
Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Instead of fMRI, a study reported in Current Biology in 2011 used its sister technology, MRI, to examine brain structural differences. Greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, while greater conservatism was associated with increased gray matter volume of the right amygdala.

Among the amygdala’s many functions is fear processing. Individuals with a larger amygdala--in this study, conservatives--are more sensitive to fear. The liberals’ larger grey matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex suggest a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts. Knock yourself out interpreting these results.

Schematic prolife illustrating brain’s anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala. (Photo from multiple websites.)

Links to reviewed studies published in…
Political Psychology, 2008: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00668.x/full
Cognition and Emotion, 2009: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930802110007#.VGpM7snqOUn
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2009: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103109000833
Journal of Politics, 2011: journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7975084&fileId=S0022381610001015
Nature Neuroscience, 2007: www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v10/n10/full/nn1979.html
Current Biology, 2011: www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2811%2900289-2

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