Scientists increase conservative beliefs using non-invasive brain stimulation

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Non-invasive brain stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increases Conservative beliefs, according to a study published this January in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The strength of political belief systems has been recently attributed to their ideological ability to reduce uncertainty. For example, an ideology is motivating because it offers a way of coping with anxiety and uncertainty, increasing feelings of security. Furthermore, the way in which people look at certain political issues, and possibly change their political beliefs, may be strongly influenced by the specific feelings aroused during the early stages of processing.

Recent research has suggested that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex plays an important role in this process, due to its involvement with short-term memory and cognitive control. For example, brain imaging studies have found that increased dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation correlated with reductions in the preference for previously supported political candidates.

The study, by Caroline Chawke and Ryota Kanai of the University of Sussex, aimed to clarify the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the alteration of political beliefs. They used a method of transcranial random noise stimulation (a non-invasive brain stimulation technique) on 36 students to enhance activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while they watched either a liberal (labor party) or conservative party campaign. For the control condition, non-active sham stimulation was applied. All participants completed measures of political orientation, both before and after watching the advertisement.

The results revealed that enhanced dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity, for the students who watched the liberal campaign, led to a significant increase in conservatism or right-wing ideology. Surprisingly, for the students who watched the Conservative Party campaign, there was also a significant increase in conservative political beliefs. Therefore, the non-invasive brain stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex appeared to result in increased Conservative beliefs regardless of the political campaign students were exposed to.

The authors suggested that, “These highly opposing values must somehow originate in different cognitive mechanisms underlying motivation toward uncertainty and threat reduction.” Further adding that, “enhanced DLPFC may have resulted in an increased preference for security, certainty, and social dominance; traits which have been proposed as the defining characteristics of a conservative or right-wing ideology.”

The finding that non-invasive brain stimulation can alter political beliefs provides evidence of the instability of political support, as well as highlighting the powerful influence that reducing uncertainty has for strengthening an ideological/political system.