Wired left, right and centre

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An interesting neurological study indicates that partisans and non-partisans – or perhaps the ideological and non-ideological folk – are two different species. OK, not quite, but they do think differently:

Experts found functional brain processing differences between partisans and nonpartisans in parts of the brain which help people to socialize and engage with others- the right medial temporal pole, orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. As people completed a simple risk-related decision-making task there were differences in the blood flow to these regions of the brain between the two groups.

Dr Darren Schreiber, from the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “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.

“In the USA 40 percent of people are thought to be nonpartisan voters. Previous research shows negative campaigning deters them from voting. 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.”

The mechanics: “The team of political scientists, neuroscientists, and psychiatrists scanned the brains of 110 participants in the USA with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they completed the task. Some were registered with one of the two main parties and others were not. The differences in brain activity came when people had to choose whether to make a safe or risky decision, suggesting nonpartisan voters engage differently with nonpolitical tasks.” It’s San Diego, so the scientists had 56 Democrats and only 17 Republicans – versus 37 non-partisan people – to play with.

The study throws up some interesting observations and questions to follow. On one level it is not surprising that people who have strong beliefs and are passionate about politics are in some ways similar to each other, even if their actual beliefs are in fact radically opposing. The Political tend to look at the Non-Political and wonder “How can they possibly not care” (or feel strongly – as strongly as I do) about a particular problem or issue. The Non-Political look at the Political and think “No wonder the world is such a mess with all these crazy people at each other’s throats”; life would be better if people were calmer and more pragmatic. The difference between the two personalities is real.

It would be useful in the future to drill down more into the specifics of non-partisans. Eschewing the major political parties does not always or necessarily imply lack of specific political beliefs. Are non-partisans disinterested or centrists or political but against business-as-usual – or, indeed, are some of them at the extremes beyond the conventional two-party system?  And what is the causal relationship? Are people wired to be either partisan or non-partisan? Or does partisanship change the neurological architecture of our brains, which, as we increasingly understand, are malleable? If it’s the former, what are the factors that respectively shape people to be either of the two?

If the study is essentially correct in its conclusion, the implications for campaigning in democratic societies are indeed interesting, as Dr Schreiber points out. The negative/positive split between the party bases and the swinging voters (or Independents) in the middle is well recognised. But understanding the science behind it will no doubt make it easier for the political professionals to work their magic more effectively, particularly now that technology increasingly allows to target individuals with specially crafted messages.

For now, when you talk to your non-political friends, remember: be kind and gentle with them – they really are different to you and I.

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