Your “Hidden Brain” Impacts Your Politics

Hopefully, all of us will vote in the midterms on 11/6 or before. Roughly half the country will vote for Republicans (conservatives) and half will vote for Democrats (liberals.). Did you know that your choices are not only impacted by your upbringing and experiences, but also very specifically by your genes? We’re hard-wired from birth for much of our political views.

Shankar Vedantam is one of my favorite authors and commentators. He is NPR’s social science correspondent and before that a journalist at The Washington Post. His 2010 book “The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives” describes how our unconscious biases influence us. I highly recommend it.

Mr. Vedantam relates the story that on a regular basis, right before an election, someone will share an article with him about how science proves that the brains of a liberal are stunted or that Republicans are less intelligent than Democrats. While those claims likely have no merit, Mr. Vedantam contends that there are “genuine psychological differences between liberals and conservatives.”

On a recent Hidden Brain telecast, Mr. Vedantam hosted political scientist Dr. John Hibbing to the show. Dr. Hibbing is co-author of “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and The Biology of Political Differences.” Dr. Hibbing pointed out that differences between partisans are not limited to politics. There are generally differences in food choices, living spaces, and temperaments. Conservatives generally like meat and potatoes; liberals are more likely to prefer ethnic food. Conservatives tend to have organized rooms with things like sports memorabilia, while liberals tend to have lots more books and may not be as tidy. As far as temperament, conservatives tend to favor order and tradition and liberals tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity and change.

Then, there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to threats and danger. According to Dr. Hibbing, conservatives tend to see the world with its terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, and immigrants as a very dangerous and threatening place.   Liberals tend to believe they live in a relatively safe society.   Conservatives therefore want and need the government to help them “protect themselves and their family, limit immigration, and put lots of money into defense and law and order.” Liberals, on the other hand, are reinvigorated by immigrants coming to our country, don’t see the need to spend so much money on defense and support gun control. Conservatives and liberals read about events of the world and they simply don’t respond to them in the same way.

Mr. Vedantam chimed in: “There is a very powerful illusion that we have that the rest of the world sees the world the way we see the world. And, if they come to a different conclusion, it must be because they’re being deliberately obtuse or somehow deliberately biased, as opposed to the idea that people are actually seeing the world the same way, but reacting to it differently.” Psychologists call it a case of “false consensus” that we assume others will see the world the way we do.

People are wired differently. Roughly 30-40% of our political views come from genetics based on research by Dr. Hibbing. 60-70% comes from our environment. Mr. Vedantam has described how researchers separate the effects of biology from those of the environment. They look at fraternal and identical twins. Both sets of twins have identical initial environments, but the fraternal twins have similar but not identical genes. Data from thousands and thousands of twin pairs supports the conclusion that political views are quite “inheritable.”

Finally, brain activation patterns of liberals and conservatives are different. Dr. Hibbing has conducted tens of thousands of experiments in which he showed various pictures to individuals whose brain was being scanned. Liberals’ brains would highly activate at times much differently than when conservatives’ brains were highly active. The brain scan results alone proved “incredibly accurate in determining whether an individual was a conservative or liberal.”

Frankly, I find it very helpful to learn that political views are at least, in part, biological. Years ago, left-handers (like both my mother and father) were thought to be lazy and had their hands hit with a wooden ruler to make them write “correctly,” using their right hand. People saw left-handers as a flaw, something that needed to be driven out. Now, of course, we understand that being left-handed is very biological. Similarly with politics. Dr. Hibbing concludes: “If we recognize that others, virtually half the country, are oriented to the world in a different fashion, maybe we would be a bit more tolerant to them. This is the only way we’re going to get anywhere if we at least understand where they are coming from even if we might deeply disagree with their conclusions.”

As we approach the midterms with the vitriol rising, let’s all remember our hidden brains and those of others, particularly family and friends and show tolerance and respect to all. We may see the same world differently: our unique genes, unconscious biases and life experiences may produce different conclusions and different political preferences. Yet, we’re all Americans and we and our country will all do better if we work together.