Dear Emotions: Vote for me! Sincerely, the Politicians

voting boothsFor those of us in the U.S., the fervor of the election season has only recently passed. From untold truths to outright lies, the political dialogue of our country is at its most heated. Those of us with an interest in the fate of our nation avidly watch the debates and tune into the news to find out which of our candidates can walk the walk once they talk the talk. But how do we decide? Can our brains take in the information and process it like machines would—removing all the fluff and analyzing the layers beneath, and, finally, calculating the factors together to form a rational decision? Or do politics affect our emotions too much for us to ignore sentiment and passion? Could there be a biological basis for how we process our emotions and choose a candidate?

Studies show that our political brains are much more emotion-based than many would like to believe. According to psychologist Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, there are three factors that entice voters into making certain decisions. The first factor is the feeling brought on by a certain party and its platform. The second is the emotion evoked by a certain candidate—this includes our response to the way he or she appears and speaks. The final factor is our reaction to what the candidate says, and his or her overall political stances on particular subjects.

How do we know that people’s emotions play a more active role in voting than reason does? In 2004, Westen conducted studies with 15 strong Democrats and 15 strong Republicans in which each subject was presented with examples of George W. Bush and John Kerry contradicting themselves during the 2004 election7. In the majority of cases, the Democrats criticized contradictions made by Bush and ignored those made by Kerry. The Republicans responded likewise, criticizing Kerry and ignoring Bush’s mistakes. The phenomenon these subjects exhibited is something everyone experiences, and not only in politics. It’s called unconscious confirmation bias8, and it’s the main reason our emotions dictate so many of the decisions we make. Our brains unconsciously seek confirmations of their beliefs and ignore, or unintentionally misinterpret, any contradictory evidence.

To detect which areas of the brain were used in this confirmation bias, Westen included functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and other neuroimaging techniques in his study. Scans show that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex2, the region of the brain that functions in reasoning and decision making, was not activated during these studies, indicating the possibility that rationality does not play as important a role in our political decisions as we’d have ourselves believe. The regions that were activated included four main regions–the orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the posterior cingulate, and the ventral striatum. Decision making was not activated during these studies8. The orbital frontal cortex is involved in emotion processing3, the anterior cingulate and the posterior cingulate in empathy and problem solving1, and the ventral striatum in reward-based decision making5.

donkey and elephantIf the conclusions that Westen draws are accurate, and further evidence is found to back it up, is it possible that Democratic and Republican differences in opinion could be due, at least in part, to something intrinsically biological? Studies at USC conducted MRI scans on subjects that were given tests to determine their stances on certain political issues6. These scans were focused on the mirror neuron system—a neural mechanism that functions primarily in social responsibilities. Different areas were activated between Democrats and Republicans6; interestingly, these areas are associated with different ways of viewing social-connectedness. The areas activated in Democrats are involved in broad ways of thinking about the world (friendships, a global citizen point-of-view) while those activated in Republicans are involved in more “close-to-home” perspectives (familial relationships, one’s own country). If these scans are accurate, they give way to a whole new perspective for understanding partisanship. The popular, stereotypical dichotomies between donkeys and elephants might really be based off of biologically driven differences in social values. Of course, current research should most certainly be taken with a grain of salt, as there are too many factors to assume the accuracy of anything at this moment.

Political neuroscience is still in its infant stage, but like most infants, it demands attention. The evidence thus far raises many questions about the way people view choices and make decisions. If the majority of political decision-making is emotion, and practical analysis plays less of a role than it probably should, are voters in danger? If further evidence arises in support of confirmation bias, it’s possible that politicians could exploit emotions for further gain. In fact, anyone could—not just politicians, but advertisers and lawyers and anyone seeking public approval to justify their ends. Political debate and legislative processes might become more emotion-centered than fact-oriented. And the matter of free will would rise to the surface—to what extent are we governed by our emotions and unable to reason with unbiased logic? If the “neurological wiring” behind the way Democrats and Republicans think is truly so different, can people actively change their minds? Or is the biological basis based more on situations people encounter in their lives than the way they, perhaps, were born?

Food for thought: should more rational thinking be strived for, while emotion guides us to such an extent? Or should we try to put the two ways of thinking hand-in-hand? And maybe we can’t. Maybe, the knowledge that we vote with our emotional brains doesn’t necessarily give us the power to change that. And if the differences between liberal and conservative ways of thinking are actually internally biological, could this serve as a barrier to bipartisanship? Is there a way around it? Are we all less in control of our decisions than we thought? Or is it a mixture of circumstance, environment, and intrinsic nature?


  1. Allman, John M., Atiya Hakeem, Joseph M. Erwin, Esther Nimchinsky, and Patrick Hof. “The anterior cingulate cortex.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 935, no. 1 (2001): 107-117.
  2. Blumenfeld, Robert S., and Charan Ranganath. “Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex promotes long-term memory formation through its role in working memory organization.” The Journal of neuroscience 26, no. 3 (2006): 916-925.
  3. Cavada, Carmen, and Wolfram Schultz. “The mysterious orbitofrontal cortex. Foreword.” Cerebral Cortex 10, no. 3 (2000): 205-205.
  4. G. Rizzolatti, and L. Craighero, “The mirror-neuron system,” The Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (2004): 169-92, accessed November 2, 2012.
  5. Heekeren, Wartenburger, Marschner, Mell, Villringer, and Reischies, “The role of ventral striatum in reward-based decision making,” Neuroreport 18 (2007): 951-955. doi:10.1097/WNR.0b013e3281532bd7.
  6. Jeff Stensland, “This is your brain on politicsUniversity of South Carolina (2012). Accessed November 3, 2012.
  7. Owen, Lord. “Swaying the swingers: how neuroscience influences voting behaviour.” Brain 131, no. 2 (2008): 591-595. doi: 10.1093/brain/awm330.
  8. Shermer, Michael. “The Political Brain.” Scientific American, July 2006. Accessed November 2, 2012. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0706-36.
  9. Taylor, Matthew. “Exploiting neuroscience lessons to shape policy.” BBC News, November 29, 2011. Accessed November 3, 2012.
  10. Image credit (Creative Commons): Maxwell, Scott. “LuMaxArt Free Election 01.” Flickr, August 10, 2008. Accessed February 9, 2013.
  11. Image credit (Creative Commons): DonkeyHotey. “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – 3D Icons.” Flickr, October 19, 2011. Accessed February 9, 2013.

Tina Shah is a student at Cornell University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.