America's Political Divide: Red Brains vs. Blue Brains

Research Shows Political Leanings Depend on How Brain Processes Information

By VICKI MABREY and URSULA FAHY

Oct. 15, 2007—

Spend a day on the campaign trail, and you'll get an earful about what conservatives and liberals think of one another.

You'll hear things like "liberals are liberals. They wanna remake the world in their own image, which is, of course, contrary to the beliefs of conservatives."

And " The Democrats, the liberals, are more concerned about people. The conservatives are more concerned about greed."

Partisan stereotypes? Perhaps. But take a step back and ask how the members of each side got their beliefs. Could it be that your brain is wired liberal blue or conservative red? Some researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and New York University believe they have the science to prove that very well may be the case. They tested their theory on college students and found that political orientation in large part depends on how our brains process information.

"Personality researchers have identified five major traits or characteristics or dimensions of personality," says John Jost, associate professor of psychology at NYU and one of the lead authors of the study. "They spell out the acronym OCEAN -- openness, continuousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism or emotional stability/instability. And I can tell you that research has shown that liberals and conservatives differed on two of these, and they don't differ on the other three." Can you guess on which two they differ? "They differ on the first two -- openness and continuousness," Jost said. "So liberals score higher on measures of openness to new experiences, whereas conservatives score higher on measures of consciousness that include aspects such as need for order, structure, discipline, duty and obligation."

Political Leanings in the Lab

When "Nightline" went to NYU to talk with Jost and fellow author David Amodio, they showed us how they conducted their research. Their subject was a 24-year-old psychology graduate student named Margarita. Margarita was first given a questionnaire that asked about her political leanings. She identified herself as "somewhere left of center."

She was then taken to a tiny lab about the size of a broom closet where electrodes were attached to her head. In the room were a desk and chair, a computer, keyboard and camera. Once she was settled, Margarita was told to click the keyboard every time the letter M appeared onscreen and to refrain from clicking when she saw a W. Those letters were chosen because they are visually-tricky inverted images of each other. They appeared oncreen for just a fraction of a second each time. An M appeared four times more often than a W, conditioning participants to click first and think later.

While Margarita was clicking away, her brain waves were being measured next door. This is the first neurological study of political leanings that tests impulses to see whether participants are rigid or open to going with the flow.

"People who rated themselves as more liberal were more sensitive to the cues and more responsive, so that they were more accurate in stopping when they saw the no-go cue," says Amodio, who is an assistant professor of psychology at NYU.

Candidates Catering to Brain Types?

Researchers say what happened in the last presidential election was a classic left-wing brain, right-wing brain divide. Depending on your point of view, Democrat John Kerry was either a complex thinker weighing the pros and cons, or a flip-flopper. President Bush was rigid, or he was "on message."

Jost and Amodio say it's shaking out the same way for 2008.

"It does appear to me," Jost says, "that on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney do seem to be exuding or trying to exude a kind of steadfastness, a resoluteness, a firmness, a toughness really, that is sort of the hallmark of the conservative mind-set. On the liberal side, I do think that Barack Obama and John Edwards look like kind of classic high-openness types."

Hillary Clinton, he says, is somewhat of a hybrid. "Hillary Clinton seems to be showing her structured, organized, persistent style, maybe in an attempt to overcome the flip-flop image that both John Kerry and Al Gore fell prey to," says Jost. "[She] may be trying to overcome the sort of flip-flop, too-nuanced-for-one's-own-good image that may have hurt John Kerry and Al Gore," he says.

Naturally, there are critics -- and they tend to be of the red-brain persuasion.

One Republican voter said, "We're open to new things. We enjoy new experiences. We're not just a bunch of close-minded hicks." Another voter says she doubts this kind of information can be studied by science at all.

Does this mean we're all hard-wired and can't change? Scientists say no, it's not all nature and no nurture. Where we live, the people we grow up around, our life experiences, all shape our beliefs. And neither one is right or wrong.

"I think our society needs both," Jost says. "We need stability, order, structure, organization, tradition. But I also think we need creativity, curiosity, tolerance, diversity, equality."

And, he adds, we're probably all hard-wired to favor tax cuts.