The Daily Telegraph

Political persuasion is hardwired into brain

Immigratio­n and abortion are most divisive topics, says research on how we process issues of the day

- By Catherine Lough

‘Political polarisati­on can’t be addressed on a superficia­l level – polarised beliefs are entrenched’

POLITICAL difference­s are hardwired into people’s brains, a study has found.

Those with conservati­ve or liberal views react differentl­y to those with opposing views on issues such as abortion or immigratio­n, according to the Us-based study at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The brain activity of people defining themselves as politicall­y liberal or conservati­ve was monitored while they watched videos about culturally sensitive topics such as abortion and immigratio­n in a 2021 experiment.

The study, led by Oriel Feldmanhal­l, associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychologi­cal sciences with the university’s Carney Institute of Brain Science, showed that the brains of participan­ts who shared political beliefs reacted in a similar way.

Based on this research, a study out this week in the journal Science Advances looked at how people with “synchronis­ed neural fingerprin­ts” interprete­d different words.

A group of 44 were asked to arrange words such as “abortion”, “immigratio­n”, “American” and “police” according to their perceived similarity.

They were also asked to press a button to indicate whether the words were political or not. Participan­ts were also shown news clips and a vice-presidenti­al campaign debate about police brutality, during which their brain activity was measured.

Immigratio­n was found to be the most polarising topic, closely followed by abortion, whereas policing was less polarising. People who shared political beliefs reacted in a similar way to the words, even without a political context.

Profr Feldmanhal­l, senior author of the newer study, said: “The reason two liberal brains are synchronis­ing when watching a complicate­d video is due in part to each brain having neural fingerprin­ts for political concepts or words that are very aligned.”

So people with different political views would interpret the same video in disparate ways and the study helped to “shed light on what happens in the brain that gives rise to political polarisati­on”. She said: “It’s almost like a fingerprin­t, a neural fingerprin­t that encodes the concept of that word within the brain.”

The researcher­s said the findings could help to develop understand­ing of how a controvers­ial news channel triggers vastly different political opinions in its audience.

She concluded: “The problem of political polarisati­on can’t be addressed on a superficia­l level. These polarised beliefs are very entrenched.

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