Do you believe in the accuracy of political polls? Would you be more likely to believe them if the poll takers could see directly into the brain of the respondent and determine if they were politically conservative or liberal – thus predicting how they will vote in the upcoming election or how they feel about decisions being made by leaders currently in office? Does this sound like a step towards mind control? A new study claims it can accurately predict political leanings by peering into the brain– and has the MRI scans to prove it.
“Can we understand political behavior by looking solely at the brain? The answer is a fairly resounding ‘yes,’. The results suggest that the biological and neurological roots of political behavior run much deeper than we previously thought.”
In a press release announcing the publication of the study in the journal PNAS Nexus, co-author Skyler Cranmer, the Phillips and Henry Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, explains how a research team at the school decided to use brains instead of surveys to analyze a person’s political leanings. Their goal was to identify parts of the brain demonstrating similar patterns of activity at the same time when performing specific tasks – an indication that the parts are in communication with each other. The study selected 174 healthy adults to perform eight standard tasks often used in scientific experiments while lying in an fMRI scanner. None of the tasks had anything to do with political views. And yet …
“But we found the scans from all eight tasks were related to whether they identified as liberals or conservatives.”
Co-author Seo Eun Yang, now an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University, expresses the team’s discovery of the correlation between the brain scans and the conventional questionnaires filled out by the participants to rate their political ideology on a six-point scale from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” While all of the tasks showed functional connectivity, signatures from empathy and monetary reward tasks were identified as powerful predictors of conservatism The empathy task had participants view photos of emotional people with neutral, happy, sad and fearful faces, while the reward task allowed them to win or lose money based on how quickly they pushed a button.
“The results with the empathy task suggest that political thought may be closely tied to emotion and emotional response. More work needs to be done to understand the relationship of reward decision-making with extreme political views.”
Anyone with the least amount of exposure to the political discourse in the United States will recognize that views are indeed tied to emotions and monetary influences. To test the validity of the brain scan results, the researchers compared the political ideologies of the participants to those of their parents and found the scans did better at predicting. However, they were surprised when they looked at influence of demographic and socioeconomic indicators, such as age, gender, income and education, and found that the brains also did better. Seo Eun Yang expressed it best.
“Functional connectivity and all survey-based responses provided the strongest predictive capabilities of any model we considered.”
If you’re into brain biology, the researchers studied the MRI scans to isolate regions of the brain to see how they were activated or not activated by political stimuli and found that specific regions of the brain – the amygdala, inferior frontal gyrus and the hippocampus – were most strongly associated with political affiliation.
“Although the direction of causality remains unclear – do people’s brains reflect the political orientation they choose or do they choose their political orientation because of their functional brain structure – the evidence here motivates further scrutiny and followup analyses into the biological and neurological roots of political behavior.”
What do the results of this study mean for the future of political polling, political research, cable TV news shows and politics in general? The researchers believe the strong connection between parts of the brain and political affiliation warrants more study. (The fulll unedited study can be read here.) What will that “further scrutiny” lead to? Will brain scans – voluntary or otherwise – replace political polling? Will political organizations join forces with unscrupulous scientists to develop machines to target specific areas of the brain with waves that might swing their responses to a different political view? Does this sound like science fiction or a dystopian prediction? Can we stop it?
Or is it too late?