For any candidate, understanding the mindset of an undecided voter can mean the difference between winning an election and going home empty-handed. Determining what's on voters' minds is something pollsters concentrate on. But now researchers are beginning to understand neurological factors that can trigger a decision.
A voter's political inclinations may be reflected in the structures of their brains. A study published last April in the journal Current Biology found significant differences in the MRI scans of self-identified liberals and conservatives. The researchers believe that these changes aren't set early in life, but rather developed through a lifetime of experiences, according to a 2011 release on the study.
Liberals were found typically to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, a finding consistent with previous studies that liberals can sort through conflicting information, according to the researchers. Conservatives, on the other hand, had a tendency toward larger amygdalas, which follows past research indicating conservatives' heightened ability to identify a threat.
Brain structure, of course, doesn't actually define political views, and the correlation isn't necessarily the single determinant of a person's beliefs. And just because a voter happens to be a partisan doesn't mean he or she has made a decision on a candidate.
Complex decisions involve multiple regions of the brain. A study published in September 2011 in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, enlists other parts of the brain to buy time and ward off impulses. The research was conducted with Parkinson's patients who were undergoing deep brain stimulation and prone to impulsive behavior.
Even if voters have not made the conscious decision to support a candidate, their unconscious may have already made the choice for them. Using what they call an Implicit Association Test, researchers from the University of Virginia measured the responses of more than 25,000 participants to determine their implicit preference for the 2008 presidential election. (The test is still available on their website, called Project Implicit.) These unconscious biases often predicted the outcome of a voter's decision even if that person stated he or she was undecided during the study.
Once voters arrive at a decision, it can be hard to sway them the other way, according to a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The research, led by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, found that when partisans listened to both positive and negative statements about their selected candidate, the area of the brain affiliated with emotional responses lit up on functional MRI scans. However, the scans showed no increased activity in the area of the brain associated with reason.
Furthermore, when participants were able to rationalize their choice of candidate even in the face of damaging truth sabout the politician in question, brain regions associated with reward-processing lit up on the scans, according to an American Psychological Association report on the findings.
Trying to understand politics through neuroscience, however, can be an admittedly hazardous area of study. Research that explicitly links the brain to political affiliation can generate controversy, such as this highly contentious 2010 study that connects liberalism with higher intelligence.
Research into the brain, however, can still provide clues as to what might lead voters to check a particular box on their ballots when Election Day arrives.
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