Rebecca S. Heiss Ph.D.


Red, Fright, and Blue

Your vote in fear or abundance both count.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

With elections right around the corner, now might be the time to better understand why you support the candidates you do. Your conscious brain does a good job of acting as press secretary to explain why your choices are conscious and logic-driven. However, the reality of whether or not you vote red or blue is more deeply embedded than you might imagine.

Element5Digital / Pexels
How you cast your vote is likely based on your brain development.
Source: Element5Digital / Pexels

Several studies have discovered structural differences in the composition of the brains of individuals that identify as conservative versus liberal. Conservative brains tend to have larger amygdalae, (a structure responsible for processing emotional responses to fear) as well as a larger left insula, (a brain structure associated with disgust sensitivity). It is easy to extrapolate these to the conservative values that promote order, patriotism, gun-rights, and strict immigration policies. These brain structure studies correlate with behavioral studies to demonstrate that conservatives have a more visceral reaction to “gross” (feces, bugs, vomit, blood, etc.) images than liberals. While these disgust responses were robustly different based on the brain scans of participants, interestingly, conservatives didn’t report feeling any more grossed out than liberals. Apparently, the conscious press secretary is working overtime to communicate strength in the face of danger. And the conservatives’ responses make evolutionary sense. Undoubtedly this disgust response would have helped our ancestors avoid foreign and potentially dangerous bacteria and pathogens and likely enhanced survival. In our modern world, this thinking also extends to social outgroups – like immigrants or those in a different socioeconomic class.

How you respond to this little guy may determine how liberal/conservative you are.
Source: AdinaVoicu/Pixabay

The brains of liberals, however, handle this information quite differently.

Left-leaning individuals have brains with more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex – a structure that is involved in ethics, morality and mediating uncertainty. Arguably, this structure’s development is key to accepting a liberal viewpoint which often demands holding conflicting information and weighing potential risks.

What is the origin of these brain differences and which response is better in modern society?

This author has a hypothesis.

Robust twin studies have found that a substantial basis of variance around political issues can be explained at the genetic level – in other words, your political affiliation is encoded in your very DNA.  To better understand how something that feels like it would be so strongly influenced by culture, could possibly be controlled by genes, it might be useful to explore a seemingly unrelated topic. Metabolism.

When mothers of unborn children are nutritionally stressed (she’s eating a highly Westernized diet or a diet lacking key nutrients or calories) her fetus develops differently in order to prepare for what it has determined to be a scarce world – one where food might be difficult to come by.  This “thrifty metabolism” whereby the new child is now making full use of every calorie he/she consumes, is often mismatched with the actual abundance of many societies.  

How you see this space might very well determine how you vote.
Source: anaterate/Pixabay

Using this same logic to explore political ideologies, conservatives are born into a world anticipating scarcity. If there are not enough resources it would make sense to fear outsiders and fiercely protect (with guns as necessary) borders, traditional families, and capital. And this focus on the negative is demonstrated to be shared by conservatives across research methods, countries, and various sample sizes.

Alternatively, those born into an abundant mindset, are likely more open to the ideologies that there is enough for everyone. Liberals are less distracted by, have less visceral responses to, and spend less time looking at, negative images.

Could it be that the underlying genetic key to determining our political viewpoints as simple as an abundant or scarce mindset?

Certainly, we can’t rule out the impact cultural influences have on our political ideations, but even these play at manipulating the underlying differences in brain structure between liberals and conservatives. For example, several studies have demonstrated that to turn liberals toward a more conservative outlook you need to activate their amygdala.

If this is how you look on your way to vote you'll likely vote conservative.
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay

In other words, scare them; light up the portion of the brain that is naturally more active in conservatives. By making liberals feel threatened, they are more likely to adopt conservative viewpoints. Alternatively, limiting the reactions in the amygdala by making people feel completely safe can change political ideologies in conservatives to be more left-leaning.

So how do we reconcile, talk across the aisle and become more unified? I think a basic understanding of the brain mechanisms behind these ideologies is essential in order to begin talking in the same language.

Conservatives – what would a world look like if you weren’t so scared? If we lived in a world of abundance?

Liberals – what would a world look like if you were a bit more scared? If we lived in a world of scarcity?

At the end of the day, who you vote for is far less about any issues your cognitive, conscious brain spins in an eloquent justification, and far more about your biological response to abundance and fear.

On November 6th and every day, let’s look to be more conscious of what is truly driving our vote.

Who knows, it just might change it.  


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B. Wicker; et al. (2003). "Both of us disgusted in My insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust." Neuron. 40: 655–664. doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(03)00679-2. PMID 14642287.

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Napier et. al. (2017).Superheroes for change: Physical safety promotes socially (but not economically) progressive attitudes among conservatives. European Journal of Social Psychology.