If you want to know people’s politics, tradition said to study their parents. In fact, the party affiliation of someone’s parents can predict the child’s political leanings about around 70 percent of the time.
But new research, published yesterday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests what mom and dad think isn’t the endgame when it comes to shaping a person’s political identity. Ideological differences between partisans may reflect distinct neural processes, and they can predict who’s right and who’s left of center with 82.9 percent accuracy, outperforming the “your parents pick your party” model. It also out-predicts another neural model based on differences in brain structure, which distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.
The study matched publicly available party registration records with the names of 82 American participants whose risk-taking behavior during a gambling experiment was monitored by brain scans. The researchers found that liberals and conservatives don’t differ in the risks they do or don’t take, but their brain activity does vary while they’re making decisions.
The idea that the brains of Democrats and Republicans may be hard-wired to their beliefs is not new. Previous research has shown that during MRI scans, areas linked to broad social connectedness, which involves friends and the world at large, light up in Democrats’ brains. Republicans, on the other hand, show more neural activity in parts of the brain associated with tight social connectedness, which focuses on family and country.
Other scans have shown that brain regions associated with risk and uncertainty, such as the fear-processing amygdala, differ in structure in liberals and conservatives. And different architecture means different behavior. Liberals tend to seek out novelty and uncertainty, while conservatives exhibit strong changes in attitude to threatening situations. The former are more willing to accept risk, while the latter tends to have more intense physical reactions to threatening stimuli.
A vote in tomorrow’s presidential election could be viewed one of two ways.
It’s either the culmination of months of weighing the arguments on countless issues and making a choice based on a commingling of knowledge and personal principle.
Or you voted Republican or Democratic because, to paraphrase accidental pundit Lady Gaga, you were born that way.
Okay, in the spirit of punditry, the latter is a bit of an oversimplification, but it does reflect the thinking of an emerging field called political neuroscience. Its focus has been on using brain scans to see if people of different political persuasions are different all the way done to their genes.
Or put more bluntly, do their brains work differently?
Right brain, left brain
The latest research came out last week, a study at the University of South Carolina that concluded that the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans aren’t hard-wired the same.
Specifically, the scientists found more neural activity in areas of the brain believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country).
This was in line with what previous studies have suggested, that people who say they’re Democrats tend to take a more global view on issues while those who call themselves Republicans tend to see things through more of an American filter.
But the findings also ran counter to previous research suggesting Democrats are, by biological nature, more empathetic souls than Republicans. Not so, according to the South Carolina study; it’s just that Republicans are more likely to focus their empathy on family members or people they know.
With the first presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday night, we’re about to hit the whitewater of the campaign, the time when any slip, any rock beneath the surface, can turn the boat over.
And though it doesn’t seem possible, the political advertising will shift into an even higher gear. Last week alone Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and outside political groups spent an estimated $55 million to drum their messages into the minds of voters.
But whose minds might they be? Must be the undecideds-that 2 to 8 percent of American voters who remain uncommitted and, it turns out, are largely uninformed.
It couldn’t be the rest of us, right? We’ve made up our minds, we know what we believe, right?
Change is good?
Well, maybe so. But perhaps not as much as you think. A new study of moral attitudes by a team of Swedish researchers would seem to suggest that our minds are considerably more changeable than we imagine.
Here’s how the study worked: Subjects were asked to take a survey on a number of issues for which people are likely to have strong moral positions-such as whether government surveillance of e-mail and the Internet should be allowed, to protect against terrorism. Or if helping illegal aliens avoid being sent back to their home countries was commendable or deplorable.
Once they assigned a number to each statement reflecting their level of agreement or disagreement, the participants turned to a second page of the survey attached to a clipboard. And in doing so, they unwittingly mimicked an old magic trick. The section of the first page containing the original statements lifted off the page, thanks to glue on the back of the clipboard. In its place was a collection of statements that seemed identical to the ones on the first list, but now each espoused the direct opposite position of the original. For instance, a stance deemed commendable in the first list was now described as deplorable.
Mixed Portrait of Freshman Political Views: Their beliefs may lean liberal, but their politics tell a different story
New research reveals that college freshmen hold increasingly liberal views on key social issues like same-sex marriage and rights for illegal immigrants. But the progressive viewpoints haven’t translated into significantly greater levels of activism or heightened enthusiasm for national politics.
Those findings, published Thursday in an annual survey from the University of California at Los Angeles, paint a complicated election-year portrait of the country’s newest prospective voters. Are they progressive-minded and eager to embrace more-tolerant social views? Are they cynical products of a sour economy and a fractious political era, bent on punishing the establishment by staying home on Election Day? Or are they simply more inclined to favor civic engagement on a local level—volunteering in their communities, say—over national politics?
Or are they all of the above?
The research, done each year by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, along with other recent reports, provides some clarity, but only to a point. Consider these trends: In 1997, the year that UCLA researchers first began asking freshmen for their views on same-sex marriage, slightly more than half of all respondents said they supported it. In the latest survey, that percentage had reached an all-time high of 71 percent. (For more on how students’ views on social issues have changed over time, see related charts.)
Other findings from this year’s survey point to whether students act on those political beliefs.
Ten percent of respondents said they had worked on a local, state, or national campaign during the past year, placing them on the low end of a figure that has fluctuated between 8 and 15 percent over the past four decades.
At a time when angst over student debt and demonstrations linked to the Occupy movement have ignited some campuses, only 6 percent of respondents said they anticipated taking part in student protests while in college. (In the late 1960s, those numbers were, perhaps surprisingly, even lower: In 1968, 5 percent of respondents said they planned to take part in protests. The figure has never topped 9 percent.)
Numbers, of course, tell only part of the story. For every statistic that portends an apathetic future for today’s young voters, there is a student whose behavior augurs something quite different.
People who live at the bottom of the social order, especially at the bottom of more than one of its hierarchies, are frequently condemned to a life of crippling disadvantage. The existence of such mutually reinforcing power hierarchies calls the social order itself into question as a matter of justice. Political movements need to disrupt these hierarchies to overcome injustice.
In the United States, a healthy black politics is indispensable to that task. Black politics—African Americans’ ability to mobilize, inﬂuence policy, demand accountability from government officials, participate in American political discourse, and ultimately offer a democratic alternative to the status quo—have at times formed the leading edge of American democratic and progressive movements; black visions were some of the more robust, egalitarian, and expansive American democratic visions. This status has been lost.
The decline of progressive black politics is apparent in the Occupy actions that have swept the country to protest economic injustice. There has been black participation, and in some areas, such as Chicago, black efforts to mobilize communities have been aided by the presence of a local Occupy movement. But, for the most part, Occupy has been divorced from black politics.
Yet both today’s black communities and black political traditions have much to offer Occupy and progressives at large. Blacks are more supportive than any other group of Americans of state action to redistribute wealth and bring about a more equal and just society. A National Journal poll released last October found that 84 percent of blacks support a surtax on people earning more than $1 million per year, compared to 68 percent support overall. They are also the strongest opponents of U.S. military intervention: blacks opposed the 2003 intervention in Iraq at far higher rates than did any other group, including Democrats. Black progressive traditions have long offered a more just and democratic vision than is usually found in American political discourse. Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, William Monroe Trotter, Hubert Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, Cyril Briggs, and W. E. B. Du Bois are just a few of the many activist-theoreticians (they tended to be both) who led movements dedicated to fighting for racial justice and in most cases offered a broad vision of social and economic justice as well.
Today there is a disconnect between black organizing and other mobilizations on behalf of labor, suffrage, and radical economic reform. Even worse, the black civil society that in the past supported flourishing black activism is today weaker than it was for most of the twentieth century. Without a mobilized black politics, American democracy is even more vulnerable to internal attacks by those who have been openly suspicious of mass democratic movements for decades.
The lack of a black political movement also feeds into the view, popular among some Americans, that we live in a post-racial society. But our apparent post-racial order, signiﬁed by President Obama’s election and inauguration, is an illusion. The black poor, if anything, ﬁnd themselves in conditions of greater deprivation now than at any time in the recent past. Racial inequality remains a brute fact of life in this country. The interracial political unity that is supposed to herald a truly post-racial society also does not exist. Blacks and whites remain bitterly divided in their political beliefs. This political division has led to desperation and anger in many black communities.
And that anger and throttling despair have replaced the insurgent forces of the civil rights era—insurgent because the change these forces sought was nothing less than transformative.