Neurological divide: Democratic, Republican voters have different brains than nonpartisans

EXETER, England — If you’ve ever talked politics with a friend or acquaintance and left the conversation feeling like your brain operates on an entirely different level than theirs, turns out you may have been right all along. A new study from the University of Exeter finds loyal Republicans and Democrats have different brains than people with no political allegiances.

According to the findings, nonpartisans process risk-related information in a different way than Americans registered to vote as either a Republican or Democrat. Notable differences were observed between partisans and nonpartisans in several areas of the brain associated with socialization and engagement with other people (understanding other people’s thoughts, connecting with social groups, etc).

These regions include the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the right medial temporal pole, and the orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex.

‘Nonpartisans need to be considered a third voter group’

The authors say these findings confirm that nonpartisans are a legitimate political demographic, and not just a subsection of liberals or conservatives hesitant to show off their political leanings.

While deliberating on a straightforward risk-related decision-making task, the flow of blood to these brain areas was quite different among registered partisan voters in comparison to nonpartisans.

“There is skepticism about the existence of nonpartisan voters, that they are just people who don’t want to state their preferences. But we have shown their brain activity is different, even aside from politics. We think this has important implications for political campaigning – nonpartisans need to be considered a third voter group,” explains Dr. Darren Schreiber, from the University of Exeter, in a release.

“In the USA 40 percent of people are thought to be nonpartisan voters. Previous research shows negative campaigning deters them from voting,” he adds. “This exploratory study suggests US politicians need to treat swing voters differently, and positive campaigning may be important in winning their support. While heated rhetoric may appeal to a party’s base, it can drive nonpartisans away from politics all together.”

While primarily authored at the University of Exeter, this research was made possible via collaborations with numerous American institutions and researchers. They include NYU, the University of Texas, and the University of California, San Diego.

Brain scans of voters show differences

To come to their findings, this international team performed MRI brain scans on 110 American adults from the San Diego area (56 Democrats, 17 Republicans, 37 nonpartisans) as each participant was completing an assigned task. The task asked subjects to decide between two hypothetical scenarios that would either result in a guaranteed payoff or the possibility of greater losses/gains.

It was during the decision-making process for this conundrum that the participants’ brain differences emerged. These observations suggest, researchers say, that nonpartisans approach and engage with non-political ideas differently than partisans.

Moving forward, the study’s authors want to research this phenomena further. For instance, do these brain differences also have an influence over nonpartisans’ personalities?

The study is published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties.

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