Dr. Mike: The Psychology of Your Vote

This month, the doctor takes a look at how our brain affects our vote.

Patch contributor Dr. Mike takes a break from reader questions this month and ponders the psychological basis for our voting decisions.

Polls show President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney neck and neck in their race for the presidency. And with the election just days away, both gentlemen are working hard to secure your vote and a victory. The economy. Obamacare.  Foreign policy. Medicare. Education. Social Security.

But what if these political issues, or at least how you feel about them, are actually not entirely in your control? What if the vote you cast on Nov. 6 turns out to be influenced more by your gray matter than by campaign ads, debates, career records or bus tours? Scientific research over the past several years has revealed some fascinating findings regarding the intersection between our biology and neurology and the way we vote.

Similarities across several well-conducted research studies have revealed a distinct trend when comparing the neuroanatomy of conservatives and liberals. Using structural MRI’s to assess political attitudes, a 2011 study published in Current Biology found that conservatism is correlated with increased volume in the amygdala and liberalism is correlated with greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.

The amygdala is the region of the brain that is associated with emotions including fear, pity, anger and aggression, in processing information involving subjects or events. Think fight-flight response for the amygdala. The anterior cingulate cortex, on the other hand, is the area of the brain that deals with conflict monitoring, error detection and weighing out competing parts of a problem toward a solution. Evolutionarily, the amygdala is considered to be an older part of the brain and the anterior cingulate cortex is housed in the frontal part of the human brain, which is considered to be the more recently developed part of the brain. 

These findings could loosely support the gross stereotypes that conservatives in general tend to process information on more of a reactive level and liberals tend to think more deliberately and with their hearts.

Additional research may support these stereotypes. For example, a recent two-year study on new car purchases conducted by Strategic Vision found that conservatives are the top purchasers of trucks, large SUVs, pickups and luxury cars – arguably emotional purchases – while liberals tend to purchase more hybrids and smaller, practical vehicles – arguably rational purchases involving reward anticipation, empathy and decision making. Conservatives are also much more likely to own guns in their homes than liberals, which could be considered a decision that is rooted more in fear and aggression than empathy and reason.

Conversely, other research has looked specifically at the role genetics play in political partisanship and ideology, as well as political participation, challenging the traditional idea that how you vote is mostly related to environmental factors (e.g., Trends in Genetics, 2012; Scientific America, 2009; the Journal of Politics, 2008; the American Political Association, 2008; Behavioral Genetics, 2007). While no one study has yet to locate the republican or democrat gene in determining voter outcome (if such a gene or genetic markers even exist), the research findings in this area of study concur that there is a very real relationship between genetics, heritability and voting.   

So what can science tell us about those elusive, undecided voters we have all heard so much about over the past several weeks? A 2008 large-scale twin study published in the American Science Review examined the correlation between identical and fraternal twins in voter outcome, which showed a significant genetic relationship for those who voted and those who abstained from voting. Another twin study published in 2012 in the Journal of Theoretical Politics found that the variation between voter participation can be accounted for by a genetic component and that this may hold true across cultures.

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I have had the opportunity to listen to many of my patients’ views on politics over the years, and more recently their opinions and decision-making for the upcoming presidential election. Of course, I am not a researcher or scientist, I do not have a large randomized sample to pull from, and the topic of the presidential race has only been broached by some of my patients. But I have been listening closely for months now to those who do want to express their thoughts and feelings on the presidential race. And in my listening, I can honestly report that I have yet to meet an undecided voter in my Northern Virginia office. Rather, I have identified three types of voters in my practice: those who are Republican, those who are Democrat and those who are disinterested in voting. In listening to this latter group, it is clear to me how they feel and whom they would most likely vote for if pressed. The issue for these individuals is more importantly that they just do not want to vote.   

Be it nature or nurture, or a combination of the two, the exact hows and whys of your vote remain unclear. The science in this area is in its infancy, so for now, you just have to accept that your decision to vote for Obama or Romney, or not to vote at all, Nov. 6 is multiply determined by several factors – the various messages you internalized growing up and the current values, social mores and beliefs you have established as an adult, as well as your neuronal hard wiring and circuitry.

Colter95 November 03, 2012 at 06:11 PM
I saw Obama yesterday claiming the new job numbers are proof that his policies are working and that we are in an economic recovery... Fact is, that is not the truth, or even close to the truth... First, the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9% and the year-to-date monthly average of 157,000 payroll jobs is barely enough to keep up with population growth -- much less make up for the 8 million jobs lost during the Great Recession. Second, the so-called real unemployment rate (U6) remains elevated at 14.6%, albeit down from 14.7% the prior month. Similarly, the labor participation rate is at 63.8%, up from its multi-decade low but still incredibly weak. Third, average hourly earnings fell a penny in October and average hours worked fell to 34.4 from 34.5 in September. Stagnant wages means "we're not generating income," Reinhart says. "That's a problem in terms of the durability of an economic expansion, which is usually fueled by consumption. To get consumption you've got to generate income." Also, just look at your checkbook. We are paying a lot more for everything now than we did in 2008. The price of gas has doubled. At the same time, wages have gone down, and that's if you're lucky to have a job. In 2008, 25 banks went out of business. In 2012, 48 banks have gone out of business. Almost double the amount. Does that sound like recovery to you? Don't believe the Obama lies!! Romney/Ryan 2012
VA_in_VA November 03, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Oh, that hurts and couldn't be more wrong. I was a GOP follower. I actually want there to be rational reasoned difference of opinions in the political debate. However, when one side is dominated by religious fanatical science fact deniers who think the earth is 6000 years old, rational debate is over. I refuse to belong to a party led by those who wear their religious dogma on their sleeve, and allow it to dominate their political views. THAT my friend is why I will never vote for any GOP candidate until someone running as a GOP candidate stands up to the evangelical bullies that drive the the current party leadership. Of course this will never happen since this is their base.
Long Island Dave November 04, 2012 at 03:37 AM
AND FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE TONIGHT: FREE 2016: Obama's America - Entire Documentary Here http://www.butthurt.co/obama/2016
VA_in_VA November 04, 2012 at 04:12 AM
Butthurts? More like your brain if you believe that propaganda. The guy is an admitted long time conservative operative with a complete agenda. Simply a well-crafted joke. Giant leaps of illogical connections style to generate fear .. oh the beware the black bogey man. Give me a break! It might as well be titled "Swiftboat II - our journey to socialist hell!" I and most of NoVA are too well educated to fall for this simple minded drek. Please come Wednesday morning, when the sun rises in the East and you lose, lets all get along and get work done. Stop the hate and name calling. Stop the blocking of bills that will help us recover from this economy mess.
e keam November 06, 2012 at 01:22 AM
What a ridiculous post! Did Dr. Mike get his credentials online? He seems like an IDIOT!


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