As the political ads show on our TV screens, the question asked in many lounge rooms is: “Seriously, how could you vote for that bunch of #%%&?”

I’ve always been fascinated about how we form our political allegiances. What makes us hard-right, hard-left or a swinger?

The question was traditionally addressed by sociologists who told us that it was mostly in our upbringing – our political views are handed down to us from our parents or formed by our peer group and life experience.


But now, as our political views seem to be coming more and more entrenched – especially in the US – and the world is more in need of global consensus than ever, the science of why we vote the way we do is attracting a lot of research.

Anthropologists, evolutionary psychiatrists and neural scientists are all taking a look at our brains. They conclude it’s all right there in the old DNA.

(Settle in for an eye-opening read here. And prepare to have your views challenged. Although…)

A team of researchers from Penn. State and Brown universities looked at the way people experience fear, which is in our genes.

The level of fear we have varies enormously from person to person and, of course, changes over our lifetimes.

What the researchers found is that those with a fearful disposition tend to be more politically conservative. They’re “less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own”. (The opposite can also be said that progressives are reckless in their approach.)

As lead researcher Rose McDermott is careful to point out, not everyone who votes conservatively has a high fear disposition (and vice versa). But her work does show a demonstrable link.


Think this confirms your notion that those who want to “Stop The Boats” would change their minds if they just looked at the facts and figures instead of being led by their emotions? Read on… 

The second study is from Darren Schreiber, a neuroscientist who turned his skills to the political sphere. Looking at brain scans on 82 people  given a task that involved a gamble he found that those who voted Republican and Democrat were using different parts of the brain.

Republicans were using the amygdala – the brain’s threat response system or “fear centre”. Democrats used the insula – which deals with feelings. The test had an 82.9 per cent prediction of the study subjects’ political party choices. A higher correlation than found by sociologists who have aways said that it’s your parents who are the primary influence on whether you are “left” or “right”. That’s in the genes too. But Schreiber’s study gives less weight to peer group pressure.

Progressives can tolerate uncertainty and deal with the world in shades of grey, he concluded. Conservatives are more likely to see the world as “binary”. In black and white.

Interestingly, former PM Julia Gillard says she sees the world in varying shades of grey. And perhaps it explains why Tony Abbott wrote a book called “Battlelines”, keen to give certainty to his world.

As for Kevin Rudd, he seems to defy categorisation … someone take a look at his brain!

Similar research was done by Drew Westen for his ground-breaking 2008 book The Political BrainWhen reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are all about feelings and too often politicians want us to look at the “issues”. The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works, he says.

A new book by University of Virginia Professor John Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religionbacks up this research and takes a broad look at our motivations. He makes an interesting analogy.

He says the human mind is divided into two parts – a rider and an elephant. The rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

“The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 per cent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behaviour.”

Intuition (the elephant) comes first and strategic reasoning (the rider) is subservient. If the elephant perceives a threat and heads off in one direction, the rider can’t do much more than try to hang on for grim death and try to explain it. The way we perceive threat comes from evolution, he says –and has little to do with reason.

Haidt also cites a DNA analysis of 13,000 Australians which found that conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger including germs, contamination and even white noise.

In is review of the book in the UK Telegraph, Ed West said:

“That might be why actors, rock stars and basically everyone who’s remotely cool or sexually magnetic votes Democrat or Labor, and are prone to making idiotic, ill-informed comments about the world. While conservatives tend to be, on average, more fearful, unimaginative, unadventurous and, who knows, probably sexually inadequate too.”


 However before you “lefty” readers start to feel good about yourselves…

Haidt asked 2,000 American voters to guess what their opponents would say on a range of issues – those on the left side of politics most often got it wrong. Those on the right understood those on the left better, even if they didn’t agree.

Progressives, he says, base their morality almost exclusively on three “flavours” – care for others, liberty from oppression, and fairness – whereas conservatives use those three plus another three: loyalty to one’s group, sanctity and respect for authority.

 Our political positions are notoriously hard to shift. And this study on How Facts Backfire says the “undecided” are our best hope.

Tellingly, all agree that to make a just society, to steer a steady course, the right and the left need each other.

The message?

We should be more tolerant of others’ views when it comes to politics and religion. There are many forces in play that make us vote the way we do. 


There, did that change your mind? Where do you think your right and left views come from? 



He Said, She Said. I Give Up!

And the Voters go “Tweet”

Please, Reserve Your Judgement


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