Fact

Studies have shown that Liberal's and Conservative's brains are different, both biologically and psychologically, on average.

Do Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently? Do Liberals and Conservatives Have Different Brains?

We know liberals and conservatives think differently, however science suggests differences not only in thinking process, but in brain structure as well. Below we look at the many studies that have looked at the neurological differences between people with different political ideologies and moral compasses. Keep in mind these are peer-reviewed studies (typically with less than 100 participants each), so while the science is notable enough to be published, more studying needs to be done, and nothing is written in stone.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

How Are Conservative And Liberal Brains Different?. This video looks at this study: Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. This study focuses on psychological differences, the video and studies below looks at biological factors like brain size and genes.

While the research done is far from absolute evidence, some studies have found biological and psychological differences between people who identify as American-Conservatives (“right” / Republicans) and American-Liberals (“left” / Democrats). These differences include a difference in the size of brain regions, differences in genes, differences in thinking styles, and importantly differences in morality and ethics.[10]

How Genes Determine Your Political Views. This video looks at Genopolitics from a centered perspective. Check out this video from the Manhattan Institute on the same subject.

Physiological Differences

Importantly, one study of 90 healthy volunteers, showed biological differences include an enlarged anterior cingulate cortex in liberals and an increased right amygdala size in conservatives.

With the above highlighted, takeaways of a 2011 study specifically include:

  • Political liberalism and conservatism were correlated with brain structure
  • Liberalism was associated with the gray matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex
  • Conservatism was associated with an increased right amygdala size
  • Results offer possible accounts for cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives

In very simple terms this suggests:

  • Conservative brains are more active in declarative and episodic fact-based memory and negative emotions like fear.
  • Liberal brains are more active in terms of emotional awareness and empathy.

The implications of these differences are further explained here and in the videos below. Another study here used different methods and looked at different research, but concluded the same general thing regarding character traits.

Liberal vs. Conservative: A Neuroscientific Analysis with Gail Saltz. This Big Think video explains some of the most recent research on the brain and political leanings. This is the “academic liberal” perspective. This video looks at this study (the one we note above on the biological differences) Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.

FACT: Liberals and conservatives don’t just have different ways of seeing the world, their brains usually looked different under an MRI. It seems that using just brain imaging alone one can guess whether a person is liberal or conservative with about a 60- 70% accuracy (see the Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults study for exact figures).

What don’t we know? We don’t know what biological differences are in the brains of those who consider themselves independent, and we don’t know if this is nature or nurture (if people are born this way, or if using a thinking type enlarges part of the brain).

Red brain, blue brain — the neurobiology of political values | Hannah Holmes | TEDxDirigo. One last TEDx video on the subject due to the science being young.

Moral Differences

Another study explained in the video below, looked at moral differences between liberals and conservatives. The study looked at five moral factors: purity, in-group, authority, fairness, and harm, and consistently saw those who considered themselves conservative to care more about authority, a tigh-knit in-group, or tended to favor tradition and purity. See the video for details.

The moral roots of liberals and conservatives – Jonathan Haidt. This video looks at the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. 

TIP: When we say liberals and conservatives we generally are talking about the American meanings of these terms (which is important as “liberal” has a unique meaning in modern America). The studies noted on this page are based on how people identify themselves. So “liberal” is modern Democrat (social-liberal) and “conservative” is modern Republican (libertarian-conservative). With that said, each study is different and each individual understands the parties and political leanings in a different way. See the basics of the political parties, our model of the left-right spectrum, or our history of liberalism (which is also the history of conservatism).

How Morals Influence If You’re Liberal Or Conservative. Another look at how left-wing-brain right-wing-brain (in terms of politics) affect morality? How does it relate to biological differences? This video takes a look.

Other Differences

The above studies and other peer-reviewed studies that look at political ideology, thought process, and brain structure listed in the citations below don’t suggest one type of brain is better than the other, but they do seem to suggest that the old “right brain, left brain” adage has some weight to it. The studies show that liberals and conservatives favor a type of thinking, not that liberals and conservatives had completely opposite views. For instance, a conservative may be more likely to favor their in-group and view it as traditional, while a liberal might be more likely to think of their in-group as having new experiences.

The simple takeaway: If you want to convince a liberal of conservative views or a conservative of liberal views, then you need to step in their shoes and talk to them from their perspective. For example, a conservative might not respond to emotion-based arguments, while a liberal might not respond to arguments based on fear of “out-groups.”

See Here’s What Science Says About the Brains of Democrats and Republicans or Differences in Conservative and Liberal Brains – 2016 for more in-depth looks at left-brain-right-brain studies in regards to politics.[11]

The Genetics of Politics | Liberals vs. Conservatives | Gene Wars [P2]. This is the same science from a “conservative libertarian” perspective. This video also talks about other genetic aspects of political leanings, including r/K selection theory (which also correlates to “left” and “right.”

TIP: Neither you nor your uncle is actually “crazy” based strictly on your political views. Rather, each is taking a rational view based on their hardwiring and soft-wiring. We must learn to respect and understand each other’s arguments and why certain issues are important to others.

The Science of Political Orientation. Let’s end with a lecture from Berkley Center.



Conclusion

Conservatives and liberals don’t just have differences in thinking, they seem to have biological and genetic differences too.

Arrogating all the studies on this page, i’m left with the conclusion that we are hardwired to be left or right, and “soft-wired” from our families, friends, cultures, and media. Our neuroplasticity plays a role, shaping us, but it seems we have power over the process.

The obvious and simple takeaway is that to be effective you must be able to use your “left-wing” and “right-wing” brain, you must use your liberal empathy to step into the shoes of a conservative, and you must use your conservative flight or fight and fact-based thinking to understand why liberal-style empathy is important.

It seems the left and right both hold a key to the puzzle, sure it is tempting to fight, but a little bit of peace, love, and understanding might just yield better fruit.


Citations

  1. Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives
  2. Differences in Conservative and Liberal Brains – 2012
  3. Differences in Conservative and Liberal Brains – 2016
  4. Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults
  5. Biology and political orientation
  6. Red brain, blue brain: evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans
  7. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism
  8. Social Justice and Social Order: Binding Moralities across the Political Spectrum
  9. Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology
  10. Genopolitics
  11. Here’s What Science Says About the Brains of Democrats and Republicans


"Liberal’s and Conservative’s Brains Are Different on Average" is tagged with: About One Half of..., American Politics, Human Brain, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Morality, Neurons


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Molly Bado on

If it’s a fact that conservatives and liberals are hard wired differently, how do you explain the fact that people generally become more conservative as they age? Brain doesn’t change, but opinions do.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

The brain actually does change as we grow, changes throughout our life. this is called neuroplasticity (see http://factmyth.com/factoids/thoughts-can-rewire-your-brain/). I don’t know what would explain changing political views with age, but it is a great question and something to look into.

Also to be clear, just because lots of studies point to differences doesn’t mean we know this for sure. Each study is like a clue, it points to a truth, but it isn’t absolute fact itself.

Suzanne on

“utilizing a thinking type”. How about “using a thinking type”? Utilizing something is to use it for a purpose that was not originally intended. “I utilized my laptop as a doorstop” is correct. “I utilized my laptop to check my email” is not correct.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Good thoughts. Thank you for the suggestion.