Is there something politicians know that the vast majority of the US voters don’t? Some of them are proof that all they need to know is how their voters think. You don’t really believe some of them talk the way they do because they’re stupid do you? It may at times appear that way, but they are speaking to voter profiles.
First they outline their demographic and then angle the pitch. There is plenty of published research on why and how certain types vote. And really it’s a predictable statistical function of the voter’s brain. But even given the current political atmosphere I couldn’t believe the venom certain candidates were spewing. With so much negativity – about “EVERYTHING” and then all the warmongering. I began to wonder if they might be fanning the flames of a growing national hate movement.
Then I read an article, “Red Brain, Blue Brain” about a joint study done by Dr. Darren Schreiber from the University of Exeter and neuroscientists at the University of California, San Diego. Using fMRI brain scans of 82 participants, they actually found differences in the way conservative and liberal brains function. Conservatives are reactionary, using an area of the brain (amygdala) related to fear. Liberal brain activity involves internalization – self-awareness, competence (left posterior insula).
With data in hand Dr. Schreiber and his team looked up participants’ political party registrations. Based on neural response they found they could predict with an 82.9% accuracy how a person will vote. This has become the most accurate predictor known. Could it really be that simple? Well although intriguing, I needed more.
According to psychologist Mike Dodd, University of Nebraska, Lincoln – “The two parties simply see the world differently.” Using electrodes to monitor skin conductance of 48 people and eye tracking devices involving 76 students, this was his study’s conclusion. Conservatives just walking into a room focus on negativity. “They’re essentially monitoring things that make them feel uncomfortable, which does feel fairly consistent with conservative policies. It doesn’t make them better or worse people but there might be a biological basis for their views” Mike said (Live Science).
Then there’s the Yale Law School study in Social Neuroscience journal, which also used fMRI to take images in real time. FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) works by tracking oxygen in the blood to image neural activity. Increased activity requires increased oxygen rich blood. For instance, the brain’s “reward center” becomes active when listening to music.
The Yale study however focused on racial bias in jury awards for discrimination cases. This was also a small study with 19 non-Hispanic white participants which included an IAT (Implicit Association Test). The IAT tests the strength of a person’s automatic subconscious responses. This measures precise reaction times to associations with positive or negative words to images of blacks and whites. Subconsciously favoring one race over another is not racism because it’s not explicit. Again bias was detected.
In Palm Springs, CA at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference they showcased several more studies about the nature of political beliefs – yielding many provocative results. The interests centered around, why there are such sharp divides between the parties on issues like war, same-sex marriage, abortion and immigration.
Emory University psychologist Drew Westen’s study strongly suggests that emotions and implicit bias influence how people view candidates. It causes them to spot faults in opposing candidates while rejecting negative information about candidates they favor.
Psychologist Brian Nosek, University of Virginia found that those with implicit and admitted racial bias tended to vote Republican. “What automatic biases reveal is that while we have the feeling we are living up to our values, that feeling may not be right. We are not aware of everything that causes our behavior.” Nosek along with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji conducted their study online involving 130,000 whites and their views on blacks using the IAT method.
Among whites 75% showed implicit bias but Republicans harbor more anti-black prejudice. Theoretically all people have the ability to control explicit bias but I strongly believe some are hardwired.
At New York University, Neuroscientist David Amodio and his colleague Patricia Devine tested 150 white college students and once again, implicit biases shone through. But why do these split-second negative responses exist? The amygdala operates extremely rapidly, long before our conscious thoughts have time to react. Our brains have evolved to categorize and simplify patterns that are complex. Thus, “if left unchecked, they might lead to the expression of some bias in a way that you don’t intend,” says Amodio.
Fortunately, the amygdala alone doesn’t control our behavior. We have a large highly-complex frontal cortex, helping to inhibit impulses, make complicated decisions and behave in socially appropriate ways.
The FFA (fusiform face area) along with the whole ventral temporal cortex (VT cortex) are involved in facial recognition. Scientists are able to distinguish which race face one is viewing, simply by VT cortex activity.
Now, I went into this wanting to be impartial especially since I have Republican friends but the science just isn’t there to support impartiality. In every study I’ve read, Republicans attract negative, racially biased voters and maybe by design. There are now enough studies to corroborate this fact and interestingly there don’t seem to be any to contradict them.
This doesn’t mean all Republicans are racists; some are good people. Nor as many critics suggest, are the universities and scientists anti-conservative. In their book “Blind Spot” by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, professors of psychology at Harvard and the University of Washington, respectively say: Most of us may hold biases so when we go out of our way to help people like ourselves we’re being “good” people. Self-deception is understandable but such selective privileging reinforces the status quo. The best indicator of the validity of this is predictive behavior is how it transitions into the poor treatment of blacks.
Is there a baseline for a “model mind?” Are we to one day set an ideal attainable moral and ethical value? Scientists debate whether such higher-order processes as consciousness and morality have their own real estate in the brain. Luckily the mind can be investigated and fMRI is now an essential tool for researchers around the world wanting to watch the brain at work. “It provides information that can’t be obtained with any other approach right now,” said Hal Blumenfeld, M.D., Ph.D. professor of neurology, Yale University. The method is noninvasive and shows the whole brain at once.
Jon Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford University says: “If anyone in Washington is skeptical about these findings, they are in denial. We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting. Republicans are supported by whites with racial prejudice. If people say, ‘This takes me aback,’ they are ignoring a huge volume of research.”
With all this peering into the mind using fMRI and other methods like EEG, CT, electrodes and sensors, others have taken notice. Many of the cynics are now embracing the findings. Lawyers want the technology for screening jurors, law enforcement want the lie detection capabilities. Companies like No Lie MRI want to provide those detection services. DHS wants fMRI for predictive pre-crime terrorism technology along with the military. Advertisers, entrepreneurs and neuro-marketers want in too. Employers want to pre-screen job applicants.
David Adam, The Guardian – writes: “This new research raises the possibility that police recruits could be screened for bias.” At its most far-reaching, the study raises the possibility that the minds of people, including police, firemen, educators, etcetera, could be screened for racist attitudes. A leader in this research, Professor Jennifer Richeson, Dartmouth College concurs and says: “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe we got this correspondence with the brain activity!
As for me, I detest explicit racism and believe it should be a recognized mental health disorder!
For more fMRI studies: NYU, SUNY, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, Carnegie Melon, Dartmouth, University of Chicago, Columbia, Exeter, Emory, Cornell, University of Sydney, Oxford, University of Freiburg, Temple University, University of Geneva and many others.