In the increasingly polarized political climate, bringing up politics can be a risky business. Liberals often berate conservatives for being closed-minded, while conservatives dismiss liberals as being too soft-hearted, and nothing seems to get accomplished except increased bitterness from both sides of the political spectrum.
But research shows that the difference in people’s politics may have less to do with experience and more to do with actual brain structure.
In other words, liberals and conservatives have different brains — literally.
And knowing that there are actual brain differences could be key in toning down opposing rhetoric and actual discussing policy with others in a more productive manner. If, for example, a liberal knew that the reason his uncle often dismissed President Obama as a Muslim from Kenya and that same uncle understood that his nephew’s belief in universal healthcare was because of differences in their actual brain structures, they may manage to be a little more civil when discussing their differences.
Furthermore, knowing what may appeal to another person’s brain structure could help shape arguments that would appeal to the opposing sides.
So, what’s the difference between a liberal brain and conservative brain?
“What’s really fascinating is that there have been a number of recent studies looking at brain structural differences between liberals and conservatives,” said Saltz. “And what’s been found in several studies is that liberals tend to have a larger anterior cingulate gyrus. That is an area that is responsible for taking in new information and that impact of the new information on decision making or choices. Conservatives tended on the whole to have a larger right amygdala. Amygdala being a deeper brain structure that processes more emotional information — specifically fear-based information.”
Of course, even when presented with evidence that seems as clear as actual brain structure, nothing is ever black-and-white. Everyone is individual, Saltz explained. However, looking at a person’s brain structure can give researchers the ability to guess which kind of approach may resonate more with a person, depending upon whether they have a “liberal brain” or “conservative brain.” In fact, just looking at the brain structure gave researchers a statistically significant probability of predicting whether a person was liberal or conservative.
“Basically the study showed that if you just based it on brain structural size difference, you could predict who would be a conservative and who would be a liberal with a frequency of 71.6 percent; 71.6 percent is a pretty high ability to predict who is a conservative and who is a liberal just from brain structure.”
For comparison, the ability to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative based on their brain structure was even higher than the ability to predict liberalism or conservatism based on upbringing.
“When you look at what your parents were in terms of predicting what you might be in terms of conservative versus liberal, that enabled you to predict in studies at a rate of 69.5 percent. So very close. Not quite as good. And why is that interesting? It’s because the brain is plastic.”
And there are, of course, positives and negatives to both liberal brains and conservative brains, as Dr. Saltz explains in the video below.
For example, even though conservatives should be more likely to be fear-driven when making decisions, Saltz explains that other factors go into their decision-making processes.
“Conservatives, in fact, in personality studies do tend to rate higher in areas of stability, loyalty, not liking change, and incorporating religion when it comes to making certain choices.”
As for liberals, Saltz says you’ll “find stronger ratings in terms of liking change, wanting to actually base decision-making on new information, on science information. And so those differences are not surprising in light of these brain structural differences.”
Even with science, and actual, visual brain differences between liberals and conservatives, it still comes down to individuality, Saltz explained.
“Being a liberal or being a conservative really is not black-and-white. It’s really a bell-shaped curve where, you know, someone who considers themselves conservative may be far less conservative, so to speak, than someone else who still calls themselves a conservative. And that bell-shaped curve continues all the way through where in the middle there may be a large group that calls themselves independents.”
With the primary season coming to an official close and what promises to be an increasingly ugly general election starting, it might be good to take a step back when dealing with a member of the opposing political party and remind yourself that it may be their brain structure driving their beliefs and votes. Knowing that may help facilitate more civil discourse between liberals and conservatives.