Over the past year or so I’ve come across a number of attempts by sociologists and psychologists to try and understand the differences in the way politically conservative voters differ from those with a more liberal viewpoint. One study which I have yet to find a copy of again suggested that conservatives tend to favour tradition and security over fairness, while liberals were more open to new experiences and rated fairness over security (if anyone can find me a reference for this study I would really appreciate it).
However, recent research is now looking to see if there is a biological component to political orientation. In a paper entitled “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults” in Current Biology (2011), in press, Ryota Kanai and his co-workers have used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brain structure of 90 young adults of varying political orientations. What they appear to have found is a correlation between political orientation and two different parts of the brain – the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex.
The amygdala was found to be larger in those with a more conservative orientation, while the anterior cingulate cortex was found to be larger in those with a more liberal orientation.
The amygdala has many functions, including sensitivity to fear and disgust, while the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in monitoring uncertainty and conflicts. Consequently, it has been suggested that perhaps conservative policies may at least be partially derived from a need for greater security (reduction of fear and uncertainty), while liberal policies result from the ability to more readily deal with uncertainty and change.
The authors of course go to great pains to stress that this work is only preliminary, and the research shows a correlation not necessarily causation. Still, it is an interesting piece of research making a tentative connection between brain structure and political orientation.
Given recent discussions on sciblogs, I can’t help but wonder if any correlations might emerge from comparisons between other groups, such as atheists and the deeply religious?