Neuroimaging study finds social conservatives have heightened brain reaction to a wide variety of stimuli

New neuroimaging research has uncovered a difference in how the brains of socially conservative and socially liberal individuals in Canada respond to images. The study, which was published in the scientific journal Emotion, provides evidence that our emotional predispositions influence our political orientation.

“One of the fundamental assumptions of a well-functioning democracy is that the best ideas will be adopted through rational discourse and through the deliberate consideration of ideas. Yet, research over the last 60 plus years has consistently shown that political belief is colored by emotion,” explained the study’s corresponding author, Shona M. Tritt of the University of Toronto.

“I became interested in studying the emotional underpinnings of political ideologies because I wanted to better understand the nonconscious factors that sway our – seemingly rational – beliefs. Understanding the psychological factors that bias information processing in the political sphere is an objective that is more critical now than ever before as partisan selective exposure and polarization is on the rise.”

The study of 42 Canadian college students found that socially conservative individuals demonstrated heightened brain reactivity to photographs.

In the study, the researchers used an EEG to record the electrical brain activity of participants while they were shown 150 pleasant, unpleasant or neutral photographs. The pictures were also categorized as either high or low arousal. (For example, an erotic scene was a high arousal pleasant picture while a disfigured person was a high arousal unpleasant picture. Low arousal pleasant pictures included things like smiling faces, while low arousal unpleasant pictures included things like garbage or sad people.)

Findings from previous research had suggested that conservatives are sensitive to negativity. But the new study found no evidence of a negativity bias.

More socially conservative students tended to display greater brain reactivity to all of the photographs, compared to more liberal students. The finding suggests that social conservatives have a heightened reaction to a wide variety of stimuli in their environment.

“Political beliefs are not developed in a cold-cognitive manner by weighing pros and cons. Rather, our emotional predispositions may lead us to prefer one type of political ideology over another, which biases our perception of political arguments,” Tritt told PsyPost.

Tritt and her colleagues wrote in their study that “[heightened] arousal may lead individuals to feel out of control, which might enhance the appeal of conservative political orientation in an attempt to regulate the social environment so as to diminish the potential for further arousal.”

But this line of study is still in its early stages. More research is needed to understand how the emotional reactions of liberals and conservatives influence their worldviews.

“The notion that conservatives have a low threshold of reactivity is likely simplistic,” the researchers said in their study. “For instance, some populations of conservatives in America would seem to exhibit a preference for many arousing stimuli (e.g., firearms, pickup trucks, whiskey, the death penalty), whereas some populations of liberals prefer seemingly less arousing stimuli (e.g., tea, tai chi, Wes Anderson movies).”

In other words, it is unclear whether the greater brain reactivity found in social conservatives would also be found in other types of conservative individuals, such as fiscally conservative libertarians.

“As the world becomes increasingly polarized, more research is needed to determine how to help individuals to better understand – and to communicate with – individuals who hold differing political viewpoints. Conceivably, better recognition of the emotional underpinnings of political belief might help us to find better ways of understanding each other,” Tritt told PsyPost.

The study, “Ideological reactivity: Political conservatism and brain responsivity to emotional and neutral stimuli“, was also co-authored by Jordan B. Peterson, Elizabeth Page-Gould, and Michael Inzlicht.