Red Brain, Blue Brain, and the COVID Strain

It may seem obvious that Republicans and Democrats harbor different opinions, but recent studies in psychology show that these ideological differences may stem from distinct cognitive patterns. One longitudinal study discovered that fearful children were much more likely to be conservative at the age of 23. Other studies reveal that conservatives display a higher sensitivity to both disgust and danger, startling more easily than their liberal counterparts. Researchers have even been able to elicit more liberal political attitudes from conservatives by priming them with feelings of safety, and more conservative political attitudes from liberals by engendering feelings of physical vulnerability.

This is a fairly new frontier in the field of psychology, and it brings up many pressing questions: what degree of modern conservatism is motivated by this propensity for fear and perceived threat? And in the time of COVID-19, why are conservatives, who are predisposed to more intense fear and disgust responses, denouncing masks as a protective measure?

The notion that a parent’s political party is a predictor of their child’s identification is a core belief in modern political science, with a 69.5% prediction rate. However, recent research is now investigating the psychological determinants of an individual’s politics. One fMRI study shows that when engaging in risk-taking behavior, Republicans and Democrats respond differently on a neurological level, with greater activation of the right amygdala (the fear center of the brain) for the former. By analyzing only these brain activation patterns, researchers can predict the party affiliations of a subject with an 82.9% accuracy rate — far higher than the predominant parental model. But this too brings up the quintessential nature vs. nurture debate: is it the high-firing amygdala which causes people to lean conservative or, conversely, is it exposure to conservatism which shapes the cognitive processes of the brain?

Though it is unclear if fear begets conservatism or vice versa, the fact remains that denouncing masks seems to be in direct contradiction of fearful predispositions.  Wearing a mask, which at its core is about protecting public health, has become increasingly polarized, with conservatives comprising a disproportionate percentage of those who protest masks. Here, it seems that separate psychological phenomena may be at odds with each other: fear of bodily harm vs. the distrust of government.

Humans have a psychological need to feel some degree of control over their lives. Studies find that when people lose this sense of control, they tend to defend government and religion significantly more to secure a sense of control-by-proxy. Conversely, when individuals come to distrust their own government, the degree of perceived control over their personal lives increases. People thus begin to focus on their immediate environment rather than the collective. This might help explain the culture of individualism which pervades America at large, especially in rural or conservative spaces. As a result, people’s sense of duty to serve the collective by wearing a mask may be dampened. The conservative fear response is very robust, and the fact that distrust of government supersedes fear of COVID when it comes to the issue of masks underscores the divisiveness of this political moment. For such an innate fear response to dissipate during a global pandemic is indeed noteworthy, and in many ways still inexplicable. The psychology of politics is an emerging field, and it seems to offer questions more often than it answers them. However, while learning to grapple with a global pandemic, perhaps we can advance our understanding of politics and neuroscience as well.


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