The Electoral Brain: The Neuropsychology of Voting for Your Candidate

Edited by: Vlada Taits

As my laptop sits opened beside me during dinnertime, playing the livestream of the first 2020 US presidential debate, I catch myself wondering (amidst the inspiring, enthralling exchange of intellect and perspectives, certainly): how did the two individuals come to occupy on this night the two polarities of the Cleveland stage? The vast chasm between their beliefs, visions, realities emanates across the screen; I am surprised to find the carpet flooring beneath me still intact by the time the 90 minutes conclude.

As for us who are voters (and us who are not, but are nonetheless possessors of political beliefs):

How do the marks on our ballots -- literal and otherwise -- come to be where they are?

Like most other phenomena of humanity, our political beliefs are intricately tethered to our neurophysiology. Converging research studies have shown liberals tend to have a larger and/ or more active anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), while conservatives are more likely to possess an enlarged amygdala.

An Overview of the Neuroscience

The ACC is a region toward the front of our brain that resembles a downward-facing hook. It contributes to error detection, conflict modulation, and value assignment; when there is an influx of ambiguous information, the ACC helps discern the relevant components from the distracting noise. This area is hypoactive in individuals with certain forms of schizophrenia. There is a diminished demarcation between the important and the irrelevant, and value judgement is impeded.

The amygdala, on the other hand, is an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei to which emotional response development and memory consolidation are attributed. Some studies have shown the amygdala is larger in autistic children than in their neurotypical counterparts; the emotional trigger threshold of these individuals is often lowered, and their sensitivity to emotional stimuli is heightened.

Politics on the Brain

The cognitive implications of a more active ACC parallel the greater propensity for responding to “informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty” -- thus change and diversity -- with which liberalism is associated. Conversely, conservatives are generally more affected by emotional appeal, and more likely to respond to emotionally charged circumstances such as changes and perceived threats with resistance or aggression. The correlation between neuropsychology and political attitudes, then, suggests liberalism and conservatism are less defined by specific issues than by a fundamental partiality to either change or stability; some researchers have postulated an evolutionary origin of the neurological differences underlying political orientation.

This is not to say, of course, that reconciliation of political ideologies is rendered impossible by hereditary neurological differences, or that one’s beliefs are entirely determined by genetics and therefore beyond conscious, cognitive control. There is no evidence suggesting the differences in neurobiology and those in political beliefs are causally related. The human brain’s plasticity also means neural networks are constantly growing and reorganizing. Political affiliation is a complex product of the elaborate amalgam of personal, social and cultural factors; physiological predisposition is simply one among them.

One other brain region deserves to be mentioned here in the exploration of the neuropsychology of elections: the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC). The LOFC is situated at the very front of the brain and contributes to appraising value, especially that which is inferred. Its normal function is necessary for the integration of complex information and methodical deliberation. Researchers have found that individuals with LOFC damage fail to inform their decisions -- including those in an electoral context -- with comprehensive evaluation. Instead, these individuals monotonously defer to superficial one-dimensional judgement frameworks such as attractiveness.

Here, it is clear that while the ACC and amygdala may direct our reception of and response to political stimuli, and eventually our overarching affiliation to specific political ideologies or parties, the LOFC ultimately governs how different facets of these interpretations articulate with each other to direct the output of decisions. Perhaps, then, the X’s on our ballots are really not mere overlaps of pen strokes, but the intersections of synergistic social, cultural and neurobiological attributes underlying the formulation of our beliefs and choices.

References

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011, April 26). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults.

Kuszewski, A. (2020, May 24). Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives.

Xia, C., Stolle, D., Gidengil, E., & Fellows, L. (2015, June 03). Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex Links Social Impressions to Political Choices.