The study tested brain function of 82 liberals and conservatives. But it's not the first. Interestingly, the findings are similar to another more light-hearted, but respected study commissioned by the BBC three years ago, oddly enough as the result of an Oscar-winning actor. The actor was even named a co-author of that study, and it brought about one of my very favorite quotes in recent years. More on it in a moment.
First though, in this recent report, the study noted that "although risk-taking behavior of Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives) did not differ, their brain activity did."
The difference was that Democrats showed "significantly greater activity in the left insula, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala." What this suggested is that liberals and conservatives process thinking about risk differently.
Specifically, in more human English -- conservatives showed stronger reactions to situations of threat and conflict, while liberals generally sought out novelty and uncertainty. In other words, external threats "primed" conservatives more, and liberals were more "risk accepting."
Remarkably, using this data, researchers were able to predict political party identification 82.9% of the time.
As I said, this all reminded me of a very similar study I had read three years ago -- all the more memorable this week since bizarrely it has an actual Oscar connection -- and I tracked it down. It was easy to remember, I should note, since the tale includes a quote that I have come to love.
Every year, the BBC Today programme brings in five different public figures to be "guest editor" between Christmas and New Years and determine the content of the radio show. For December 28, 2010, the position went to Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth (The King's Speech).
Among his several editorial choices -- which included a poetry reading -- was that he wanted to have some science on the show, as well, and requested that the BBC commission scientists to study the brains of politicians to find out if any political differences could be discovered.
What began as a playful suggestion remarkably turned in a well-regarded study published in Current Biology on which Firth himself is listed as a co-author. It's titled "Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults."
The research studied MRI scans of over 90 college students — as well as two politicians on opposite sides of the aisle, Labour MP Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan, the conservative minister of State for International Development. What the scientists found was that "conservatives have larger areas concerned with fear and anxiety while liberals have greater capacity for optimism and courage." Undetermined was whether the brain impacted political beliefs or if those beliefs affected the development of the brain. As some subsequently observed, though, this might explain why fear as a motivating message works better with the right than left.
All of which lead to my absolute favorite quote. After the findings were released and the show broadcast, Colin Firth commented -- "I took this on as a fairly frivolous exercise: I just decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don't agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it and they actually came up with something."
You can listen to the BBC segment here.