After a polarizing election season that ended right before the holidays — the prime season for awkward conversations with your relatives at the dinner table — you've probably found yourself wondering why politics are so personal. People on either end of the political spectrum tend to get emotional when the subject comes up, especially when their beliefs are called into question. In fact, this usually makes most people dig their heels in harder. So what gives?
Neuroscientists at the University of Southern California recently asked this question, albeit phrased a little more scientifically, in a paper published in Scientific Reports. In the study, researchers performed functional MRI (fMRI) scans on 40 self-described liberals. During the session, each participant was presented with eight political statements they previously said they believed just as strongly as eight nonpolitical statements. (Political topics included abortion, gun control, and taxation on the wealthy; nonpolitical topics included whether Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb.) Each was followed by five counter-claims arguing against the previous statement. Finally, participants were asked to reevaluate how strongly they believed in the original claim.
Researchers found that people were open to changing their mind about nonpolitical statements, but in the end, the counter-claims had little effect on people's political beliefs.
When they looked at the fMRI scans, researchers found that people who were more stubborn tended to have more activity in their amygdala, an area of the brain associated with emotions and emotional behavior. It's also been implicated in aggression and the perception of threats. Challenges to political beliefs also activated the Default Mode Network, a hypothesized network of brain regions responsible for aimless thinking — daydreaming, thinking about hypotheticals, and so on. Basically, the emotional parts of your brain light up when you think about politics; it's no wonder everyone is so touchy.
Lead author Jonas Kaplan pointed out the study is a reminder that humans are inherently emotional, and we can't necessarily fault each other for that. "We should acknowledge that emotion plays a role in cognition and in how we decide what is true and what is not true," he said, according to Science Daily. "We should not expect to be dispassionate computers. We are biological organisms."
This isn't the first study to find a link between brain activity and political beliefs. In a 2013 study, researchers claimed they could predict someone's political ideology with 83 percent accuracy based on their brain activity while making decisions. A different University of Southern California study found that Democrats have more activity in areas associated with broad social connectedness (friends and humans in general), while Republicans have more activity in areas with tight social connectedness (family and country). There's no way to tell if brain structure predisposes someone to a liberal ideology, for example, or whether their brain activity changes based on their beliefs, but it's clear that there really are deep-seated differences between liberals and conservatives.
That being said, if there's anything to be learned from the past year, it's that polarization doesn't help anyone. It might be hard to get along, but it is possible — at the end of the day, we all have more commonalities than differences. As President Obama said on the day after the election, "We’re not Democrats first, we're not Republicans first, we are Americans first." It's a sentiment worth remembering in 2017.