Brian Edwards Media

Are our political beliefs hard-wired? New research suggests that they are.


Conservative MP Alan Duncan's Brain

Are political beliefs hard-wired? This was a question put to Professor Geraint Rees at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience earlier this month by actor Colin Firth, guest editor of BBC 4’s Today programme.

To attempt to answer the question Professor Rees invited Thatcherite Conservative MP Alan Duncan and Labour stalwart Stephen Pound to undergo a structural brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). He then extended the experiment to include a pool of 90 undergraduates and post-doctorates who had previously been scanned at the Institute in other, unrelated experiments. They were asked to fill in a questionnaire assessing their political values, and their answers (along with those from the two MPs) were compared with the earlier structural brain scans. Today reports:

The results showed a strong correlation between political belief and two specific regions of the brain. The grey matter of the anterior cingulate was significantly thicker amongst those who described themselves as liberal, or left wing, while the amygdala – an area associated with emotional processing – was larger in those who regarded themselves as conservative or right wing. 

“It’s a remarkable finding” says professor Rees. “We were very surprised to find two areas of the brain from which we could predict political attitudes.”

Interestingly the results from Alan Duncan and Stephen Pound were consistent with the overall findings. Stephen Pound’s scan revealed a thicker anterior cingulate – consistent with those students who described themselves as left-wing – while Alan Duncan’s was thinner. Both MP’s recorded similar densities for the amygdala.  

The Telegraph reports that brains with a larger amygdala are often associated with anxiety and fear, while brains with a smaller anterior cingulate are associated with courage and looking on the bright side. 

Professor Rees concluded: ‘It does suggest there is something about political attitude that is encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that there is something in our brain structure that determines or results in political attitude.’

All of this interested me for two reasons: I’m interested in politics; and, as I reported in an earlier post, I’m a hard determinist.  I share the view of world authority on identical  twins, Minnesota Psychology Professor Thomas J. Bouchard,  that our genes account for our entire physical make-up and 50% of our psychological make-up or personality, with environmental conditioning accounting for the other 50%. Not too much room for free will there.

So it may not be just the colour of your eyes that’s genetically determined; your political views may be genetically and/or environmentally determined as well.

This doesn’t surprise me at all. In earlier posts I’ve said that I believe conservative right-wingers and liberal left-wingers think differently, that their starting points in looking at an issue are different. Right-wing conservatives appear only to be interested in what is; left-wing liberals are keenly interested in how it came to be.

In the area of greatest interest to me, crime and punishment, the right-wing conservative sees only the crime and is largely uninterested in the life experience of the offender which may have led to the criminal behaviour. The criminal is responsible for his/her actions and must be punished for his/her offending and as a deterrent to other potential offenders for the protection of society. Though I disagree with this view, I don’t consider it unreasonable. But, as New Zealand’s crime statistics show, it simply doesn’t work. One might have thought  that right-wing conservatives, essentially pragmatic and unsentimental  in their attitudes, might be swayed by the compelling argument  that something  ‘simply doesn’t work’ but, surprisingly, they aren’t. Stronger impulses appear to be at work.

In matters of crime and punishment left-wing liberals are keenly interested in offenders’ backgrounds and whether their life experiences, particularly in childhood, contributed to their later criminal offending. They will tell you – and the evidence will overwhelmingly support their contention – that, without early intervention,  the abused kids of today are destined to be the abusers of tomorrow. They are less convinced of the efficacy of punishment in turning offenders’ lives around and more interested in other methods of rehabilitation. They are more empathetic in their approach to offenders, perhaps because they take the view, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’

Is it possible that the right-wing conservative ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ attitude to criminal offending is one expression of the anxiety and fear which Professor Rees’s research suggests is wired into their brains?

And is there a ‘liberal gene’ that makes some people more likely to seek out less conventional political views? When they are published next year, the results of Professor Rees’s study will apparently show that there is.

Naturally I’m delighted by Professor Rees’s conclusions. One is always delighted when professional research upholds one’s own amateur reasoning, in this case that right-wing conservatives and left-wing liberals are genetically and/or environmentally programmed to approach issues differently, to think differently.

But I must confess that the results do go rather against the common view of right-wing conservatives as fearless, go-getting, fun-loving entrepreneurs and captains of industry with not a care in the world. And I can’t in all honesty say that I’ve found left-wing liberals to be ‘look on the bright side’ sort of people. Nice, yes. Caring, yes. But more earnest than euphoric, more worried than confidently ‘going forward’. Maybe I’ve been to too many LEC bunfights.

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  1. Hi Brian,

    It’s a fascinating study but as a scientist I am extremely skeptical about the interpretation made by Prof Rees and colleagues. There is ample room for what epidemiologists call confounding i.e. some other characteristic, environmental factors or sequence of events that has led to both the brain structure and political beliefs. I’m not sure they’ve checked for confounding properly.

    My skepticism also arises from being scared by the idea I’ve been bestowed with my political opinion and that it will remain the same regardless of new discoveries that might challenge it. Having said this I’ve never held a particularly strong left or right view. I wonder if Prof Rees scanned and surveyed the ambivalent!

    Happy New Year

  2. Brian, can you provide a link to the study on-line? I would like to pass it on. Thanks.

  3. Yikes – thats quite a claim Brian! Even the scientists on the Radio 4 piece said that this could be a case of correlation rather than causality.

    I do agree it is fascinating.

    And it seemed to me that the difference is perhaps not left or right wing, but that ones world view is more to do with the individual vs. the community.

  4. Here’s a related blog post from The Telegraph, though I don’t know if it’s what Brian read.

    I’m cautious of this initially. The research may be fine, but it needs to be repeated and scrutinised, preferably many times, and better understood before jumping to conclusions. Proper understanding of this kind of thing and its significance will take at least years or decades. The actual results of the study haven’t even been published. Few people, scientists or anyone else, have yet had a chance to properly consider and criticise them. The reason it’s getting media publicity at all seems to be because of the association with the BBC Today Programme, and such association doesn’t automatically mean good and reliable science.

    And then there are the various positive and negative terms being associated by journalists, at least by The Telegraph, with left wing (“courage” and “the bright side of life”) and right wing (“anxiety” and “emotion”) thinkers. It seems to me that there’s a journalist or two out there with some political bias and doing little to hide it. The conclusions anyone would read from this kind of research will probably be formed to reinforce whatever views they held beforehand, so I’m taking those kinds of assertions with a grain of salt right now.

    • Here’s a related blog post from The Telegraph, though I don’t know if it’s what Brian read.

      Thanks MikeM. Well worth following.

      However, the Telegraph was not expressing its own opinion, merely reporting a neuroscientific fact.

  5. Thanks for the post – hmmm so Brian after your brain was scanned, what did the results suggest?

    Sounds like 21st century phrenology to me….

    • Potaua – The results showed that everything was normal, indicating a balanced and reasoning approach in matters of politics… And everything else.

  6. Just wondering why some are more prone to throbbing headaches – are the scanned regions getting thicker and thinner and are the headaches more likely to be suffered by swinging voters?

  7. I think the genetic depends on the mental frame. When I understood Progressivism as helping the oppressed, my genes influenced me to be Progressive. When I read books that convinced me Progressivism oppresses the weak, my genes made me a non-Progressive.

    Now, if everybody has the same frame, such as Progressive helps the oppressed and Conservatives prefer the successful, then genes might make people sort a given way. Change the frame, change the sorting.

  8. Are you sure that pic is of Alan Duncan’s Brain? There’s been a mix-up, because I’m pretty sure it’s Tony Blair’s one.