Brain’s response to repulsive images predicts political orientation
Articles / Blog
02-27-15 Category: Behavioral Health

repulsive images predict political orientation

Apparently the difference between being a liberal and a conservative comes down to the way we handle fear and disgust. A recent study conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (in collaboration with researchers from University College London, Rice University, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Yale University), used fMRI brain scans to record brain activity when subjected to disgusting images such as insect infestations and rotting carcasses (with some neutral and pleasant images such as landscapes and babies mixed in). The researchers were then somehow able to match the neural responses to the person’s political ideology, being liberal or conservative.

After being exposed to the images, the participants were subjected to a standard political ideology inventory, answering questions about how often they discussed politics or whether they agreed with topics such as school prayer or gay marriage. The researchers found that a single repulsive image was enough for them to predict whether the person was liberal or conservative, ranging in accuracy from 95 to 98 percent in their ability to predict how they would answer on a political survey.

“Disgusting images generate neural responses that are highly predictive of political orientation even when those neural responses don’t correspond with an individual’s conscious reaction to the images. The results suggest political ideologies are mapped onto established neural responses that may have served to protect our ancestors against environmental threats,” said Read Montague, lead author of the study and Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute professor.

Believed to be inherited, disgust reactions are a glimpse into the evolutionary history of our ancestors and the way that they processed fear and danger. Like other genetic factors such as height or eye color, the results of this study suggest that political affiliation is inherited (a repulsive image in its own right to many).

Fear response in liberals vs. conservatives

The authors found that conservatives had more magnified responses to the disgusting images in the study, although they were not sure as to the reasons why. In addition to instincts, humans are hardwired to respond to perceived threats in various ways; these automatic reactions are what the researchers were able to link to political ideology, suggesting that conservatives either have more difficulty processing fear or are more emotional in general. The investigators believed that these responses were developed in avoidance of contamination, disease and other threats, letting time and evolution weed out the most finely tuned reactions.

The authors hope for this study to be more of a reminder for people who are adamant about their political beliefs; by becoming conscious of a genetic predisposition to a reaction to an idea, they could more clearly see what they really believe in and what they are merely reacting to based on their genes. People would also (in theory) be able to exert more cognitive control over their thoughts about an issue, possibly reducing the number of activists or violent protesters in the world.

“People can deny their biological instincts for an idea; think of hunger strikes for political reasons. That requires a high degree of cognitive control, and that’s the point,” said Montague.

Sovereign Health’s team of expert staff uses a variety of brain wellness techniques and genetic testing to find the most appropriate treatment for each individual case. Utilizing neurofeedback and brain scanning, we are able to use cognitive mapping to assess any damage incurred from substance abuse. If you have any questions regarding Sovereign Health’s approach to brain mapping or the way we are hardwired to respond to fear, feel free to browse the reviews section or contact us.

Chase Beckwith is a writer with Sovereign Health whose lifelong goal is to make reading about addiction and mental health palatable.

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