Our Political Differences are Based on Differences in Wiring of Our Brains

  • February 4, 2012

A fascinating new study by researchers at University of Nebraska-Lincoln,demonstrates actual cognitive differences between conservative people and liberal people.

“In a series of experiments, researchers closely

monitored physiological reactions and eye movements of study participants when shown combinations of both pleasant and unpleasant images. Conservatives reacted more strongly to, fixated more quickly on, and looked longer at the unpleasant images; liberals had stronger reactions to and looked longer at the pleasant images compared with conservatives.”

At first blush, this may not seem like a big thing, but honestly, it helps us to understand why the differences between viewpoints can be so extreme.

The study seems to point out two major types of cognitive wiring occurring in the human brain. Think of these two types of brain orientations as very different, yet essential, adaptations needed to survive and thrive as hunters and gatherers. The development of modern human culture appears to have co-oped these early adaptations, and they form the basis of entrenched political, religious perspectives.

The liberal brain orientation is attuned to and attentive to focusing on inequities within the culture, and has a strong desire to confront those inequities head on. It’s a kind of “lets roll up our sleeves and fix the stuff that’s broken” mentality. It sees good in life. We can see how this kind of thinking would help societies grow.

However, the conservative brain focuses on policies and measures inside the culture that protect us from perceived religious and moral threats. Its focus is more on the bad and evil. Hence the proliferation of biblical thinking among conservatives. Think “family values”, and hard line anti-abortion stances held by the Republican party. Additionally, there is also the focus on protecting culture from perceived threats from the outside world. Think defense spending and powerful military.

The bottom line? Rather than thinking people with opposite political views are intentionally ignorant, the study suggests we could enhance political understanding and tolerance if we could understand that political differences are – at least in part – based on very real differences in the wiring of our brains.