Brain scans are remarkably good at predicting political ideology

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According to the largest study of its kind, brain scans of people taken while performing various tasks — and even doing nothing — accurately predicted whether they were politically conservative or liberal.

The researchers found that the “signatures” in the brain revealed by the scans were as accurate in predicting political ideology as the strongest predictor typically used in political science research, namely the ideology of a woman’s parents. nobody.

“Can we understand political behavior by looking only at the brain? The answer is a pretty resounding ‘yes’,” said the study’s co-author. Skyler CranmerProfessor Phillips and Henry of Political Science at Ohio State University.

“The findings suggest that the biological and neurological roots of political behavior run much deeper than we previously thought.”

The study, recently published in the journal Nexus PNASis the largest to date to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain to study political ideology.

It’s also one of the few to examine functional connectivity in relation to ideology – a whole-brain approach that looked at which parts of the brain exhibited similar patterns of activity at the same time when performing tasks. specific, indicating that they were communicating with each other. .

The researchers used state-of-the-art artificial intelligence techniques and the resources of the Ohio Supercomputing Center to analyze the scans. They found correlations between the results of the analysis and participants’ reports of their ideology on a six-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative”.

The data comes from the Ohio State University Wellness Project, which involved 174 healthy adults who performed standard tasks often used in science experiments while in an fMRI scanner.

“None of the eight tasks were designed to elicit partisan responses,” the study’s co-author said. Seo Eun Yangnow an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University, who did the work as a doctoral student at Ohio State.

“But we found that the analyzes of the eight tasks were linked to their identification as liberal or conservative.”

In fact, even when participants were asked to sit quietly and not think about anything in particular, the resulting scans showed a relationship with political ideology, the co-author said. Jacques Wilsonassistant professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Seo Eun Yang“Even without any stimulus, functional connectivity in the brain can help us predict a person’s political orientation,” Wilson said.

While the analyzes of the eight tasks were predictive of participants’ ideology, three tasks had particularly strong connections.

One was an empathy task, where participants see pictures of emotional people with neutral, happy, sad and fearful faces. The second task examined episodic memory and the third was a reward task where participants could win or lose money based on how quickly they pressed a button.

Only the reward task scans could predict political extremism – those who said they were very conservative or very liberal. And only the empathy task (emotional faces) was significantly associated with moderate ideology.

“More work needs to be done to understand the relationship between reward decision-making and extreme political views,” Wilson said.

“Results from the empathy task suggest that political thinking may be closely related to emotion and emotional response.”

Although this study found a link between brain signatures and political ideology, it cannot explain what causes what, Cranmer said.

Jacques Wilson“What we don’t know is if this brain signature is there because of the ideology people choose or if people’s ideology is caused by the signatures we found,” he said. declared.

“It could also be a combination of the two, but our study doesn’t have the data to answer that question.”

The fact that brain scans are as good at predicting ideology as the standard of parental ideology is impressive in itself, the researchers said. But when brain results were combined with demographic and socioeconomic indicators, such as age, gender, income, and education, the resulting model did even better at predicting a person’s ideology. than the ideology of his parents.

“Functional connectivity and all survey-based responses provided the strongest predictive capabilities of any model we considered,” Yang said.

Cranmer noted how this study was different from others that have also used brain scans to examine ideology.

“We viewed the brain as a complex system of regions interacting with each other to produce these behaviors. Most of the other studies looked at a brain region in isolation to see how it was or was not activated when subjected to political stimuli,” he said.

This study showed that activations of specific brain regions – the amygdala, inferior frontal gyrus, and hippocampus – were most strongly associated with political affiliation.

Study co-author Zhong Lin Lunow at New York University, led the Ohio State Wellness Project while director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Brain Imaging.

The research was funded by the national science foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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