Red Brain, Blue Brain, Again

See here for our earlier reports. Darren Schreiber, Greg Fonzo, Alan N. Simmons, Christopher T. Dawes, Taru Flagan, James H. Fowler, and Martin P. Paulus have a new article in PLOS ONE:

Liberals and conservatives exhibit different cognitive styles and converging lines of evidence suggest that biology influences differences in their political attitudes and beliefs. In particular, a recent study of young adults suggests that liberals and conservatives have significantly different brain structure, with liberals showing increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, and conservatives showing increased gray matter volume in the in the amygdala. Here, we explore differences in brain function in liberals and conservatives by matching publicly-available voter records to 82 subjects who performed a risk-taking task during functional imaging. Although the risk-taking behavior of Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives) did not differ, their brain activity did. Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala. In fact, a two parameter model of partisanship based on amygdala and insula activations yields a better fitting model of partisanship than a well-established model based on parental socialization of party identification long thought to be one of the core findings of political science. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.


16 Responses to Red Brain, Blue Brain, Again

  1. andrewperrin February 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Interesting and important work. However it’s important to recognize that physiological correlates do not imply physiological causes; as I read it (which I’ve only done cursorily at this point), a process in which social/psychological causes are mediated through physiological mechanisms is consistent with the finding. More at

  2. Nadia Hassan February 14, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    I wonder where independents would be, including the leaning independents.

  3. G Rowe February 15, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Surely, what these results imply is that liberals and conservatives are each seeking solutions to fundamentally different problems (e.g., increased social cohesion versus increased security) even if they both apply the same name to their respective problems.

    • Scott Monje February 15, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

      Or, do different ways of thinking lead them to define the problems differently even when looking at the same set of evidence?

  4. ron glandt February 15, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    In reading “Thinking Fast and Slow”, I am wondering if the research of Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Peace Prize Winner) has some implications in explaining the differences of liberals and conservatives? I tend to think that liberals tend to make judgements based on more timelier thinking than conservatives. At least in my aquaintenances it seems that in-depth thinking (second thinking) is prevelent with liberals.

    I certainly like G. Rowes comment (above) that conservatives are more concerned with security wheras liberals emphasize social cohesion.

    • adano February 15, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      For the record, Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, not Peace. The 2002 Peace Prize went to good old Jimmy Carter.

  5. Darren Schreiber February 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    @andrewperrin — In fact, I think that the evidence in our paper suggests that party may actually be changing the brain. The relationship between party ID and brain function is stronger than we would expect based upon the work on heredity. So perhaps being a Democrat changes your brain. Or, potentially a third factor is driving both brain activity and party affiliation.

    @Nadia — We’re working on this now.

  6. Andrew Straticzuk February 16, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    I would not be inclined to conclude, however, from all of this that the differences in brain physiology between Blue and Red indicate simply a difference in cognitive style. For example a more risk adverse cognitive style might be less rational (say from an evolutionary point of view) than a less risk adverse style in some particular environmental milieu, or even tout court.

    • Andrew Straticzuk February 17, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

      Needless to say, conservatives are more prone to stick with the status quo or “traditional ways” than liberals. So in this sense conservatives are far more risk adverse than liberals as the term “progressive” implies. Perhaps what needs to be tightened up in these studies is what counts as risk aversion and what counts as risk tolerant. Reacting more aggressively to (perceived) negative stimuli does not indicate propensity to “risk taking” as far as I can see. Knee jerk reaction to negative stimuli is not particularly adventurous behavior in my book.

  7. ropelight February 16, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    What your results show is how the role of toxic preconceptions makes monkeys out of political partisans pretending to be impartial observers. Moreover, that liberals tend to respond emotionally to neutral stimuli while conservatives tend to respond rationally is hardly news to those who can see beyond the end of their noses.

  8. Jim Autio February 16, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    I have studied this difference in thinking between liberals and conservatives for many years. This is my conclusion: Conservatives are bold, desiring to direct their own lives, and for the most part attempting to live that way (this desire is a normal default for humans when they are young). Liberalism, however, develops as a type of societal conditioning, gradually producing adherents that are overtly insecure, but still desiring in their core beliefs to direct their own lives. Unfortunately this core belief is smothered by their inherent insecurity. In effect, liberals become paranoid of evil monsters hiding beneath every rock. So they give up directing their own life (and everyone else’s – think Obamacare) in a desperate hope that big-mommy government can create a safe utopia and destroy all of the evil monsters. I give hundreds of examples in my essays on this topic at my website (dozens on the home page):

  9. M.F.M February 19, 2013 at 12:52 am #

    Thanks for throwing objectivity to the wind and choosing to instead replace it with selective attention to confirm your biases. Assuming you lack any scientific training and haven’t published in any peer reviewed scientific journals, here are some instructive quotes from scientists / thinkers steeped in objectivity and critical thinking:

    The theories we choose determine what we allow ourselves to see.
    – Albert Einstein

    We see what we look for. We look for what we know. – Goethe

    We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
    – Anais Nin

    Some things have to be believed to be seen.
    – Ralph Hodgson

    “The tendency to organize knowledge around a belief system, and then to defend that belief system against challenge, appears to be a fundamental human characteristic….”

    “We all need the scaffolding of a scientifically based model for what we do. But if that model is used to categorically dismiss contrary data, we move from the realm of the scientific method and into the domain of cult building that you rightfully decry”.

    Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

    There are many more, but this is illustrative…

  10. Jim Autio February 19, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Your liberal scoff reflex is showing (for more go here: Defense Response). It is snobs like you that kept Piltdown man alive for thirty years. And it is snobs like you that keep the global warming cult alive – the global mean temperature of 2012 is exactly the same as the global mean temperature of 1990 [rolls eyes]. Get over your scientific elitism. Over half of scientific findings eventually end up in doubt, superceded or completely refuted. Crap – the size of the proton (the basic building block of the universe) has now been discovered to be smaller than first calculated, necessitating a complete rethink of the quantum field theory of the electromagnetic force. There are even questions about the fine-structure constant – the basic “law of nature” for gawds sake.

    My theory of the liberal/conservative divide fully satisfies the Professor Lakoff’s three adequacy conditions. Show me another theory that even comes close. Even Professor Lakoff doesn’t have one.

  11. M.F.M February 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    Hey Jim Autio… Nice job of projection and proving my point and demonstrating a venomous sensitized amygdalar response. I would agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong!!!

  12. M.F.M February 19, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    PS Jim Autio… I’m not liberal, just anti-biased, anti-zealot, anti-radical, anti-hostile, anti-neocon and anti-neurotic proselytizing!!!

  13. Jim Autio February 20, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    Ah – so you’re an ashamed liberal. I see…

    BTW I simply reply in kind. You insult me – I return the favor. You’re welcome.

    Except that I do it with substance and you do it with … nothing.