What's Going On in the Mind of a Voter?

The last presidential campaign was one of the nastiest in recent history, but tantalizing new research suggests that even in the midst of that bitter battle, partisan voters didn't want to buy into it.

It's almost as though we are hard wired to be civil, although that may seem hard to believe given the heat generated by even relatively polite political debates.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles used one of the newest and most powerful tools at their disposal to take a look inside the brains of 10 active Democrats and 10 active Republicans to see how their brains handled the deluge of data during the 2004 election.

The tool is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, and it allows scientists to see which parts of the brain become active when presented with different stimuli.

In recent years, that tool has produced volumes of facts about how the brain processes information and which parts of the brain are responsible for various functions. The field is so new that even experts are unsure what some of the results mean, although they are learning much about the biological processes at work.

The UCLA researchers recruited 20 persons in the Los Angeles area who were registered voters and who had already made up their minds about who they were going to vote for.

"We wanted to have a clear picture of the Democratic brain and the Republican brain," says Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a psychiatrist and co-author of a report on the research in the current issue of Neuropsychologia. So Iacoboni, along with colleagues Jonas T. Kaplan and Dr. Joshua Freedman, selected participants who really cared about politics.

The two groups were quite similar, five females and five males, with an average age of 35, with no known psychological problems.

The researchers cranked up their scanner while each participant looked at news photos of three presidential candidates -- President Bush, Sen. John Kerry and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Some 25 photos were shown over a five-minute span.

The scanner revealed that several areas of the brain became active when the photos were visible. The participants reacted very strongly to the photos, especially those of candidates from opposing parties.

Two parts of the brain associated with cognitive control became very active (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex), which are important in the control of emotions, response to conflict and self-monitoring.

Previous researchers found that persons with a fear of spiders who were able to control that fear when a spider ambled in showed increased activity in that part of the brain, while those who panicked did not. That's consistent with other research showing just how important those regions are in controlling emotions.

Other emotional centers also lit up in the brains of the participants, suggesting they were trying to suppress some of their feelings.

The researchers could tell quickly what was happening in the brains of their volunteers, but they were less sure of what it all meant. So they came up with three hypotheses.

Either those parts of the brain were being used to suppress unpleasant emotions or suppress a positive reaction to an opposition candidate or increase negative feelings toward an opposing candidate.

"Those three processes could all be working at the same time," says Iacoboni. "It's not that they are mutually exclusive."

So, even though we are not left with a very conclusive picture, Iacoboni notes, "the fact that we have three hypotheses is better than having a thousand."

And the researchers concluded that of those three hypotheses, the one most likely to be carrying the heaviest load is suppression of unpleasant emotions. "Unpleasant emotions, unpleasant feelings, are always unpleasant," Iacoboni says. So, suppression of those emotions, which is part of the job of the parts of the brain that lit up during the scanning, "is the most probable psychological process."

The participants were trying to go easy on the other guy, although they may not have known it at the time. Biology was at work here, and it's not always clear how much of a decision is based on facts, and how much is based on biological processes. That's part of what the researchers are trying to determine.

At the end of the experiment, the participants completed a questionnaire, asking them to rate on a scale of one to 10 how strongly they felt each of the following emotions while viewing each candidate: pride, relief, excitement, connection, delight, happiness, hope, understanding, respect, pleasure, fear, sadness, anger, shame, disgust, disappointment, contempt, despair, hopelessness and anxiety.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats weren't happy with the Republican candidates, and the Republicans weren't happy with the Democratic candidates. But the questionnaire revealed that the Republicans could stomach Kerry better than the Democrats could accept Bush.

The Republicans had more of a problem than the Democrats with Nader.

In the end, as we all know, Bush won, so at least some negative feelings must have been suppressed.

If you're a Republican, that's good.

If you're a Democrat, blame it on biology. There's more at work here than meets the eye.

At least we now know that underneath it all, we really want everybody to be nice.

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