Sunday, February 17, 2013

Experiment: Level of risk-taking shows different brain structure among Democrats and Republicans

An experiment in California was conducted testing the response to risk among American Democrats and Republicans. Their brain activity was analyzed as well as their behavior. It was found that Democrats seek novelty and uncertainty and tend to be more open to risk. On the other hand, Republicans have more intense physical reactions to threat, risk and conflict. According to the study, the actual brain structure varies among Democrats and Republicans; Democrats having more grey matter in anterior cingulate cortex and Republicans having more grey matter in the amygdala. 

Since the reactions to risky decisions differed so clearly among liberals and conservatives, studying brain activity while a number of subjects makes risk-involving decisions is a good way to understand the connection between mental activity and political opinion. For this particular study, publicly-available voting records were matched up with participants who previously participated in a risk-taking decision-making study during functional brain imaging. 

The risk involved in the task performed by the individuals involved loving or gaining money. THe participants were presented with the numbers 20, 40 and 80 on a screen for 1 second each. Pressing a button while "20" was on the screen always resulted in the gain of 20 cents. If the participant waiting to push the button until 40 or 80 showed up, there was a possibility of losing or gaining 40 or 80 cents. The choice was between a low and guaranteed payoff and a potentially higher one which was risky. 

The results showed that considerably greater activation was observed in the right amygdala for Republicans and in the left posterior insula in Democrats when making winning risky versus winning safe decisions. 

Originally a great telling factor of a person's political preferences are the preferences of his/her parents. Since the 1950s this has been studied and is largely accurate. The parents seem to influence their children's political views to a great extent. However, now scientists are curious about causality. Perhaps the children don't just have similar views to their parents because of he way they were brought up but because of a genetic factor causing similarities in brain structure. There was research done that actually showed that changed in cognitive function can ultimately cause changes in the structure of the brain. 

In the end the experiment was considered a success based on the fact that based on activity in the left insula versus the right amygdala, it was possible to tell whether the person was a Democrat or a Republican with an accuracy of 82.9%. 

This experiment may be considered useful in future attempts to predict voter behavior in upcoming elections. 

The experiment did a good job of considering all the correlations without jumping to any unproven conclusions about causality. The risk-taking behavior may develop before one chooses a particular political affiliation, causing it or the political affiliation may influence the amount of risk-taking in all fields of life. 

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