Liberal and Can’t Help It: Is Political Orientation Biologically Determined?

Why liberals and conservatives rarely see eye-to-eye.

Posted Mar 16, 2012

After a heated political discussion, have you ever wondered, "how can someone see the world so differently?" Are liberals and conservatives from "different planets?" The answer may be "Yes!"

Research in neuroscience and personality has explored the biological basis of political orientation. In one series of studies, researchers at the University of Nebraska showed liberals and conservatives pleasant (cute rabbit, beach ball) and unpleasant (crashed car, person getting beaten) pictures and followed their eye movements. Conservatives tended to spend more time focusing on the negative images and became more physiologically aroused by them, while liberals focused on the more positive images. The researchers suggest that this is in line with conservative and liberal politics whereby conservatives are focused on protection from threats, and liberals focus on a positive future.

When shown photos of well-known Democratic and Republican leaders, these same researchers found that conservatives had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats (presumed to be a negative physiological reaction); liberals also had a stronger physiological response to the Democrats (presumed to be a positive response).

The researchers emphasize that this doesn't assume that one orientation is better than the other, but simply that they view the world differently—conservatives confront the bad, liberals focus on the good.

Another line of research has examined personality differences in liberals and conservatives. Liberals are found to be more empathic, compassionate (i.e., "bleeding hearts") and open to experiences, while conservatives tend to be more concerned with order and preserving the existing social structure.

Historically, it has been presumed that the environment in which people were raised (e.g., conservative mid-West community vs. liberal urban scene) had the biggest impact on the development of political attitudes and orientation. No doubt, environment also plays a part, but this line of research suggests that biology also comes into play in determining politics.

So the next time you are in a discussion with someone who has very different political attitudes, realize that you probably DO see the world differently.


"Compassionate liberals and polite conservatives: Associations of agreeableness with political ideology and moral values" Hirsh, J. B., DeYoung, C. G., Xu, X., & Peterson, J. B., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 2010, 655-664.

Follow me on Twitter:!/ronriggio