Empathy, among other things, determines your politics.
The next time you try to argue with your conservative uncle about his politics, you might be better off saving your precious energy. Apparently, his brain might already be predisposed to his political views, according to a new study from Ohio State University.
This study, which was published in PNAS Nexus, was the largest of its kind to accurately predict whether someone was conservative or liberal solely from an fMRI brain scan. The study involved 174 adults who performed tasks such as sitting in silence, looking at pictures of strangers, or playing a game in which they could win money, per EurekAlert. The brain scans tracked participants’s brain “signatures,” which is a way of visualizing brain activity. They were then asked to rate their politics on a six-point scale from “very conservative” to “very liberal.”
The researchers found that the brain signatures of people closely correlated with their self-reported politics. The task where participants played a game for money (they could win or lose money based on how quickly they pressed a button) most strongly predicted whether someone had politically extreme views, while the task that involved looking at strangers’ faces (the photos included people looking neutral, happy, sad, and fearful) was most likely to predict if someone was more moderate, per EurekAlert.
What was most salient about the results of this study to me was that the results of the latter task, which focused on empathy, “suggest that political thought may be closely tied to emotional response,” co-author James Wilson, assistant professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a news release about the study. This would explain why people who are politically liberal seem more empathetic toward marginalized groups — women, people of color, and queer people, for example — while those with conservative politics seemingly feel less emotional about such things.
That said, study co-author Skyler Cranmer, political science professor at The Ohio State University, pointed out that it’s a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario. “What we don’t know is whether that brain signature is there because of the ideology that people choose or whether people’s ideology is caused by the signatures we found,” he said. “It also could be a combination of both, but our study does not have the data to address this question.”
The bottom line is that convincing someone to change their opinion about a political issue might require a little bit more than the usual talking points. Someone who leans conservative, for example, might be more likely to care about climate change if you talk about how being eco-friendly will benefit the economy, as opposed to talking about human and animal suffering.
The takeaway isn’t that people can’t change their views, but it does explain why changing your uncle’s politics is near damn impossible. As Cramner said, “The results suggest that the biological and neurological roots of political behavior run much deeper than we previously thought.”