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Liberal Or Conservative? Brain’s ‘Disgust’ Reaction Holds The Answer

Health McClatchy Tribune News Service Politics

Liberal Or Conservative? Brain’s ‘Disgust’ Reaction Holds The Answer


By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Think your political beliefs arise from logic and reason? Think again. A team of scientists who studied the brains of liberal, moderate and conservative people found that they could tell who leaned left and who leaned right based on how their brains responded to disgusting pictures.

The findings, published in Current Biology, show that the brains of liberals and conservatives may indeed by wired differently — and shed light on the biological factors at play in political beliefs.

Biology and politics have long been seen by many researchers as two very separate realms. Some argue that biology is irrelevant to political questions, or that the links between the two are murky or oversimplified.

“Despite growing evidence from various fields, including genetics, cognitive neuroscience and psychology, many political scientists remain skeptical of research connecting biological factors with political ideology,” the study authors wrote.

But many of the same subjects at issue in certain political ideologies — attitudes toward sex, family, education and personal autonomy, for example — have an emotional component as much as a logic-based one. And some research has indicated that political leanings can be inherited (much in the same way that height can inherited but modified, affected by a number of factors from nutrition to the environment).

To probe this controversial question, a team led by Virginia Tech scientists called upon 83 volunteers who took a test to determine what their political leanings were. Then, while sitting in the fMRI machine, they looked at 80 different images — 20 each of disgusting, threatening, pleasant or neutral images. The researchers watched how the participants’ brains reacted to each of those images while in the machine. Later, they were asked to rate how disgusting, pleasant or threatening each image was.

When shown a disgusting image — particularly one of a mutilated animal body — the conservatives’ brains reacted more strongly, and in different ways, compared with the liberals’ brains.

“Although our results suggest that disgusting pictures evoke very different emotional processing in conservatives and liberals,” the authors wrote, “it will take a range of targeted studies in the future to tease apart the separate contribution of each brain circuit.”

The difference between the two groups was stark in spite of the fact that, oddly enough, these neural responses didn’t match the conscious ratings that participants gave those pictures.

Other images, whether threatening or pleasant or neutral, didn’t show the same link, but it’s possible that pictures of threats don’t register the same way a real threat would, the authors pointed out.

“People tend to think that their political views are purely cognitive (i.e., rational),” the study authors wrote. “However, our results further support the notion that emotional processes are tightly coupled to complex and high-dimensional human belief systems, and such emotional processes might play a much larger role than we currently believe, possibly outside our awareness of its influence.”

Certainly politics is more than a few (possibly subconscious) emotional reactions; life history and experience also affect political beliefs, the study authors wrote. But it does raise some questions about whether partisans will need to develop new strategies to reach across the political aisle.

“Would the recognition that those with different political beliefs from our own also exhibit different disgust responses from our own help us or hinder us in our ability to embrace them as co-equals in democratic governance?” the researchers wrote. “Future work will be necessary to answer these important questions.”

AFP Photo



  1. idamag October 30, 2014

    I wonder if this isn’t a primitive biological trait. There are people who are born mean because they were born to be warriors and protect the tribe. There are people born nice because they were the care-givers and healers. There are people who are born artistic because they were the historians and buffers.

  2. John 8:37 - John 8:44 November 1, 2014

    Liberalism, today, is basically socialism. It’s definitely a hostile ideology.

    1. Mikey7a November 1, 2014

      I would never be for Communism, but what is wrong with a nation that gives a hand up, to those less fortunate, or physically, or mentality challenged, and especially looks after it’s very young, and very old? Why must there be only two classes in your Capitalistic(not Democratic) society, Rich or Poor? How can Education, Infrastructure, and economic balance, NOT be in the best interest of all U.S. citizens? Lastly, why is it that those with the least, do the most to help their fellow countrymen? When Power and Greed rule the day, and 2% control the other 98%, that sir, is a Plutocracy, not a Democracy…period!

    2. Sand_Cat November 2, 2014

      “Christianity” today, is basically fear, ignorance, envy, and lust for power and control. It’s definitely a hostile ideaolgy.

    3. idamag November 3, 2014

      We are all takers, including you. The government subsidizes oil companies to keep the price of gasoline low. Every time you fill up, at the pump, you are taking. Farmers think they are givers and not takers. B.S., they get government subsidies and parities. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “When you criticize a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.” Pretty puffed up with his importance. When he gives me my food for nothing I will stop criticizing him. He is a business man. I am a consumer. If he doesn’t want to raise food, Mexico, Argentina, or Canada will be happy to. If you are taking Social Security or Medicare: those are socialistic programs that you don’t hesitate to put your hand out for. BTW, can you see Jesus standing at the border shouting at scared children who are fleeing for their lives? Can you hear Jesus saying, “Let that man die, he can’t afford insurance?” Hypocrites are you all.

  3. Sean Maguire November 6, 2014

    While yesterday’s liberal is today’s conservative, today’s liberal is tomorrow’s communist.


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