It is safe to say that, for most people, the idea of being a helpless marionette, controlled at a distance by an insidious puppeteer, is a disconcerting one. We all like to think that our decisions, while not necessarily autonomous, are arrived at via some morally significant cognitive process, whereby each option is carefully weighed and assessed.
However, with recent advances in psychology and neuroscience, we are constantly humbled and reminded of how small a role we play in our own mental lives. Could it be that even our stance on such hot-button issues as gun control and gay marriage is determined by unconscious processes? According to Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech in Roanoke, the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Spurred on by earlier studies on the heritability of political affiliation and its relationship to disgust, Montague and his colleagues recruited 83 volunteers, who were asked to look at a series of 80 pleasant, disgusting, threatening or neutral images while lying in an fMRI scanner. The subjects then rated their reactions towards each image and filled out the Wilson Patterson questionnaire, designed to determine their political orientation.
After feeding the results into a learning algorithm, distinct patterns emerged. Even though both liberals and conservatives reported similar reactions to the images, the brain regions involved and their patterns of activation consistently differed between the two groups. The researchers found that these patterns, which they called neural signatures, can be used to predict political leanings.
“In fact, the responses in the brain are so strong that we can predict with 95 per cent accuracy where you’ll fall on the liberal-conservative spectrum by showing you just one picture,” said Montague. “This was surprising as there are no other reports where people’s response to just one stimulus predicts anything behaviorally interesting.”
Wary of having his study misrepresented by politically charged reporters, Montague is quick to argue that his work does not indicate that people’s views are set in stone and cannot be altered by rational means. Quite to the contrary, he hopes that both this study and future research will help us find a way to a less-polarized political future.
“The results do not provide a simple bromide, but they do suggest that important foundational parts of political attitudes ride on top of pre-established neural responses that may have served to defend our forebears against environmental threats,” claims Montague. “In the same sense that height is highly genetically specified, it’s also true that it’s not predetermined by genetics; nutrition, sleep, starvation, dramatic physical injury, and so on can serve to change one’s ultimate height. However, tall people have tall children, and this is a kind of starting point.”
“In the same vein, if we can begin to see that some ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to political issues may be simply that — reactions — then we might take the temperature down a bit in the current boiler of political discourse.”
While this study is not the first one of its kind, the sophisticated algorithm it used for analyzing the data makes it the most impressive one so far. “It’s not only a powerful replication and extension of previous work,” said Darren Schreiber of the University of Exeter. “But it’s also incredibly accurate.”
Original paper: P. Read Montague, Woo-Young Ahn, Kenneth T. Kishida, Terry Lohrenz, et al., 2014, Nonpolitical Images Evoke Neural Predictors of Political Ideology. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.050, source link.