Home » Liberal’s and Conservative’s Brains Are Different on Average
Liberal’s and Conservative’s Brains Are Different on Average
Researched by Thomas DeMichelePublished - June 5, 2016 Last Updated - July 18, 2018
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, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.)
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).
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.
Author: Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...