Scanning Brain For Political Affiliation

Can one understand the political behaviour of a person by looking solely at the brain? A new study shows that brain scans of people taken while performing various tasks accurately predicted whether they were politically conservative or liberal.

“The results suggest that the biological and neurological roots of political behaviour run much deeper than we previously thought,” said co-author Skyler Cranmer, the Phillips and Henry Professor of Political Science at the Ohio State University.

The study published recently in the journal PNAS Nexus is the largest to date to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain to study political ideology, The researchers said that their study was one of the few to examine functional connectivity in connection to ideology – a whole-brain approach that examined which parts of the brain showed similar patterns of activity at the same time when performing specific tasks, indicating that they are communicating with each other.

They used state of the art artificial intelligence techniques and the resources of the Ohio Supercomputer Center to analyze the scans. They found Correlations between the scan results and the participants reports of their ideology on a six-point scale from “very liberal” to “very conservative.

Study co-author Seo Eun Yang, now an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University said  “none of the eight tasks was designed to elicit partisan responses.”

“But we found the scans from all eight tasks were related to whether they identified as liberals or conservatives.”

In fact, even when participants were asked to sit quietly and think of nothing in particular, the resulting scans showed a relationship to political ideology, said co-author James Wilson, assistant professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

While the scans from all eight tasks were predictive of the participants ideology, three tasks had particularly strong links. One was an empathy task, where participants are shown photos of emotional people with neutral, happy, sad and fearful faces. The second task examined episodic memory, and the third was a reward task where participants could win or lose money based on how quickly they pushed a button.

Though the study finds a link between the brain signatures and political ideology, the researchers said that they did not know whether the brain signature is there because of the ideology that people choose or whether people’s ideology is caused by the signatures found.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,


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