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.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

Below we look at the many studies that have looked at the neurological, psychological, and biological 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. Also, keep in mind that what is true for a group on average is not necessarily true for an individual. Also, keep in mind humans are complex and can hold a variety of stances on a given issue and those stances can evolve over time. Simply put, when looking at the data below we want to consider it as interesting neurological and social science that gives us insight to populations, not gospel truth that tells us about specific individuals.

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.

With the above noted, and while noting that 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-social 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.” At the same time, one should keep in mind that each person isn’t different and we shouldn’t expect a member of a group will have all the qualities of a group or that a given person might not in practice have a complex mix of left and right qualities. Thus, also we should think about not just how to treat individuals, but how we can express our points and communicate with large political groups on the left and right (where population differences would be more likely to express themselves.)

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. That means respecting individuals on their own merit and as part of the groups they indentify with (more than what we indentify them as).

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 and Conservatism, 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.

Kim Kacer on

As we age, we tend to become more frail, more fearful… thus… conservatism… not always the case, but often the case.

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.

Dan on

The Hannah Holmes vid forgot to mention that liberals tend to be more courageous, have higher IQs and is less likely to fall for scams aka general B.S. and the farther left the progressively more this is the case.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I would love that to be true, but I would certainly need to see a citation and consider the study. I would wager that it would depend on things like the type of scam and the type of situation that took courage.

I’ll research what you say and see what I can add though!

Kim Kacer on
Supports this as a Fact.

Only issue I have w/ the article is that Republicans tend to NOT believe science, they discount science, and tend to reject ACTUAL fact for imagined ‘fact’ (the ‘alternative facts’ meme). So the insistence on “conservative flight or fight and fact-based thinking” is erroneous. Conservatives, on the whole, are more fear-based, liberals I know are more fact based, though, certainly they do have more empathy on the whole.

I’m just tired of the wusses getting the credit for being rational, when they are only so if one buys into their ‘version’ of reality. They are the emotional ones. Liberals are only emotional in political decisions when empathy (not fear) is involved.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing. I’ll let your thoughts stand on their own merit and offer some of my own insights in the comment form.

Insights: …. One thing I’ll say is that after reading “the google memo” I want to stress that when we talk about the inate differences of left and right and women and men (or any two naturally occuring, different and generally equal but not exactly the same groups), we want to think of this as “on average for a population” and not “as it applies to an individual or specific group.” It is almost more toward being a metaphor or model to explain what is rather than being what is. This is true even when we have social science data to back up claims.

It is something we want to approach as both a idealist and realist, with empathy and rationalism, from a liberal and conservative view, etc.

Also I would stress that things are complex, in very general terms the right may tend toward specific qualities on one issue and the left may tend toward those very same qualities on another issue.

So take fear, yes the right may tend on average to have a fear of others and respond by voting for trumpian policies on immigration for example, but the left has just as much fear of the trumpian policies as the right had fear in the first place (speaking very generally, with evidence being “what we see in the media and in social media commments” for example).

Think there is a lot to consider and uncover to better understand the political human condition, political emotion, and implicit and explicit bias and how we can make democratic, republican, liberal, and conservative principles work in a representative democracy… In words, it’s about how we make a culture work with naturally different types, not how we can demonize a natural occurring ideology and exclude or reform it (in general, in some instances we do need to temper qualities that when unrestrained can be damaging, like fear or aggression unrestrained).

Going back to pure idealism and the root of modern western philosophy, consider Plato’s republic. It is a giant metaphor for tempering the natural qualities of humans in the political realm to ensure bad qualities are restrained and good ones are ensured via a smart social structure (for the benefit not just of the collective, but if each individual).

Now I don’t think Plato’s solution was perfect, but the gist works as loose metaphor. In a family (consisting of a man, woman, and child) the woman isn’t more or less important than the man, and the child isn’t more or less important than the parent, they are all just equal but different parts of a family with different qualities. Meanwhile we generally recognize a give modern family can shift roles and break stereotypes and that is normal and natural too.

Still, the each member has some roles that most families embrace, for example rarely does the man give birth to a child or a child run the family, so there are some differences that apply on more than average that should be considered too (even if a given family breaks the mold in every respect).

Still, to stress and restress this, we should never treat averages as applying to specific individuals. Instead everyone should be judged on their own merit. And that is a position by the way that pairs liberty, with equality, and individualism with collectivism (by collectively treating people equally in respecting their individual liberty).

In other words, correctness is often found in pairing leftwing and right wing qualities. If it is our brains are different like the data suggests, then it likely is that tempering the powers of each is the best path for success. That is true for considering groups, and considering the natural dualities in ourselves. We have to be more like water and less like rocks on some issues.

On the above, and on that last note, I would look to a quote from the tao which loosely says “know qualities like fear and agreession and selfishness, but err toward being brave, non-aggressive, and compassionate.”

In other words, to be clear, it isn’t just about applying things in equal proportion, it is about knowing both and finding balance (which can require some disproportionate measures to accomplish; example being one may need extra empathy and compassion to override selfishness and aggression. If the outcome is correct and balanced, then the input was in right proportion… but see utilitarianism to not turn that into a justification for injustice… that being the other point of the Republic.)

Or at least that is some philosophical insight into metaphysical moral alchemy in the sociopolitical sphere…. Loosely speaking to the social science above to offer some extra opinions and context.

Check out my additional thoughts on the left and right here:

http://factmyth.com/the-left-right-political-spectrum-explained/

http://factmyth.com/factoids/the-political-left-and-right-are-naturally-occurring/