LINCOLN, Neb. — Self-identified liberal voters are less forgiving to Democratic politicians who cross party lines on certain issues than conservative voters are to Republican lawmakers doing the same thing, a recent study shows.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska used MRI technology to examine the brains of 58 people when they face incongruent positions by politicians. The researchers wanted to see which parts of the brain lit up when people evaluated fictional politicians’ stances on key conservative and liberal issues.
Participants in the study were asked to analyze political stances of four fictional candidates, two Democrats and two Republicans. With their brains being scanned by the MRI machine, individuals were shown about 50 stock images related to the candidates and given their positions on topics including immigration, same-sex marriage, climate change, and gun control. About one-third of the positions were not in line with party beliefs. After each image and policy stance was presented, participants were asked to decide on the spot if each stance was “good” or “bad.” Researchers calculated in milliseconds the amount of time it took for individuals to reach their decision.
The experiment proved more difficult for left-leaning participants when faced with a candidate who embraced a more conservative position on a topic. Liberals were more likely to notice when Democrats crossed party lines and, consequently, labeled these positions as “bad” more frequently. They also took longer to reach their opinions for the conflicting stances.
Conservatives, on the other hand, were less likely to notice when policy positions weren’t representative of the party. They also showed a more positive response for Democrats who held conservative beliefs. Researchers say this indicates that liberals raise red flags on politicians more frequently when crossing party lines. For example, a liberal voter may be more suspicious of a Democrat who is against abortion than a conservative voter of a Republican who favors gun reform.
“We found that liberal and conservative participants processed the information differently and that liberals were more likely to penalize candidates who expressed incongruent positions,” explains lead researcher Ingrid Haas, a political psychologist at Nebraska, in a release.
The implications of the study for politicians are manifold. Democrats with conservative leanings may find it tougher to win votes in today’s political climate than Republicans with liberal leanings. The findings also suggest that the extreme political polarization occurring in recent years isn’t only at the top, where most people assume it occurs, but also at the grassroots level.
Researchers also argue the findings don’t fall in line with the more common belief that conservatives are less tolerant of figureheads who don’t stick to the party’s agenda.
“If less scrutiny is applied to Republicans for policy deviations, it may indicate that specific liberal causes and policies have some electoral viability among Republican candidates,” Haas and co-authors wrote.
The full study was published Oct. 27, 2017 in the journal Social Justice Research.