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