Neuroscience Student Highlights the Links Between Changes in the Brain and Political Tribalism
By: Nick Santangelo
America’s partisan divide can make it feel like everyone on the other side is wrong about everything. That can make it seem impossible for conservatives and liberals to find common ground.
“There are these waves of growing divisions between Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals,” Neuroscience major Timur Rusanov told an audience of College of Liberal Arts students last Friday. It was part of a presentation he gave for the History Department’s weekly Teach-in series in Gladfelter Hall’s Weigley Room called The Neuroscience of Political Tribalism.
I want to compete with the team to win
Rusanov noted that he’s an undergraduate student and wasn’t presenting a PhD thesis. But while he may not be a political “expert,” he’s done his research on the relationship between the brain and political leanings. Students didn’t leave with a definitive answer to the question of whether partisanship affects the brain or the brain affects partisanship, but they did learn that there are connections.
”A wide range of studies show differences in the brains between Democrats and Republicans,” said Rusanov, who shared the findings of some such studies.
The first showed how the anterior cingulate cortex—the part of the brain associated with adaptation and conflict monitoring—is increased in people who self-identify as liberal. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to have a larger right amygdala, which governs emotional learning and harm avoidance. This finding allowed the study’s authors to predict a person’s political leaning with 71 percent accuracy just by looking at their brains.
Another study from the University of Southern California showed that people are more harmful when competing in a group than when competing alone. This led Rusanov to think people care less about their morals when they’re part of a group, giving rise to a mob mentality.
“You’re thinking, ‘I’m in a team. I’m in a tribe. I’m in a group. And I want to compete with the team to win,’” explained Rusanov.
Another University of Southern California study examined 40 self-identifying liberals with strong political beliefs. Participants were gauged on their agreement or disagreement with ideas like the U.S. reducing its military budget. Then they were challenged with false information like, “Russia has nearly twice as many active nuclear weapons as the U.S.” As a control device, they were also asked non-political questions like if they felt taking a vitamin every day improves their health. When the political questions were asked, the part of the brain associated with memory recall and thinking about deeply held beliefs lit up.
don’t be hesitant to call out your own party for areas where they can improve
Finally, a 2004 study gave participants statements from George W. Bush and John Kerry followed by contradictions falsely attributed to the same candidate. Participants were then asked if they thought their preferred candidate was contradictory. Unsurprisingly, partisans were less likely to accept contradictions about their preferred candidate.
“Whether you’re leaning left or leaning right, you’re going to be passionate about your politics,” said Rusanov. But he doesn’t believe everyone becoming a “neutral” voter is the best response to tribalism.
“If you have a policy you’re passionate about, stick with it,” recommended Rusanov. “Weigh all your options and if you find a party that you’re generally in favor of, vote for it. But don’t be hesitant to call out your own party for areas where they can improve.”
Students pushed Rusanov on whether changes in the brain affected partisanship or whether partisanship causes changes in the brain. He wouldn’t budge on the issue, however, telling them to look at it as having a connection rather than an “if/then” relationship.
So what should students do with this new information? Go beyond tweets, YouTube videos and hot takes and search for the truth, recommended Rusanov. Students should research what they read and hear to see how credible it is. Doing so can help them formulate opinions that are free of tribalism.
“If this directs us anywhere, it’s that people can change.”