Last March, Paul Begala, co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, asked audience members, during his keynote speech at the APA’s State Leadership Conference, to indicate their political party affiliation by a show of hands. The vast majority, not surprisingly, were Democrats. Know that, however, even though most psychologists are Democrats, AAP/PLAN has no choice but to function in a bi-partisan fashion if psychology is to have any hope of being effective in Washington. This is a tall order given the contentiousness, animosity and downright hostility that exists between the two parties at this critical juncture in the political world.
When audience members raised their hands during Begala’s presentation, I was sitting next to psychologist Tim Murphy, a partisan Republican member of Congress. I could sense his blood begin to boil when the lopsided number of Democrat hands were raised. Tim’s reaction reflects powerful feelings that are held about the political parties’ contrasting approaches to governing, public policy, the economy, defense, and certainly health care.
This is an extremely important election year. There is so much at stake when voters go to the polls in November. What leads Americans to become attached to and ultimately identify with being a Republican or Democrat? Psychologists may be best able to shed some light on revealing what factors underlie that choice of aligning with one or the other political party and the adoption of conservative or liberal political ideologies. There has been some unusual research in this area recently that you may find interesting.
Just a few months before retiring from public office in 2002, the House majority leader Dick Armey caused a mini-scandal when he announced during a speech in Florida, ‘’Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people.’’ The former economics professor went on to clarify that liberals were drawn to ‘’pations of the heart,’’ while conservatives favored ‘’occupations of the brain,’’ like economics or engineering.
Armey was never a stranger to controversy during his long service in the House. However, his statement was far from being the sort of logical and rational kind that good Republican brain-dominated, according to him, speakers would articulate. In fact, it displayed a fuzzy, unscientific understanding of the brain itself. Of course, psychologists are fully cognizant of the fact that our most compassionate (or cowardly) feelings are as much a product of the brain as ‘’rational choice’’ economic theory is. Our neuropsychologist colleagues tell us they just emanate from a different part of the brain — most notably, the amygdala, in the limbic system.
As it happens, some early research suggests that Armey might have been on to something after all. A team of U.C.L.A. researchers analyzed the neural activity of Republicans and Democrats as they viewed a series of images from campaign ads. And the early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a ‘’Democrat brain’’ was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence: either the Bush ads that featured shots of a smoldering ground zero or the famous ‘’Daisy’’ ad from Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign that ends with a mushroom cloud. Such brain activity indicates a kind of gut response, operating below the level of conscious control.
Imagine that the research reveals that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. After all, this would reflect the conventional wisdom about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain.
Opening up the brain might provide new explanations for how people become Republicans or Democrats. It’s pretty naive to think that we all decide our political affiliations by methodically studying each party’s positions on the issues. A recent study by Paul Goren at Arizona State found that voters typically formed their party affiliations before developing specific political values. They become Democrats first and then decide that they oppose capital punishment and support trade unions, for example. But how do they make that initial decision to be a Democrat? The most likely indicator of political preference is ones parents’ party affiliation. However, if everyone voted along family lines, the dominant party would simply be the one whose members had the most voting offspring. A more interesting question is why someone would ever break from the family tradition — without feeling strongly either way about specific issues.
The M.R.I. research suggests that perhaps we form political affiliations by semiconsciously detecting commonalities with other people, commonalities that ultimately reflect a shared pattern of brain function. In the mid-1960’s, social psychologist Donn Byrne conducted a series of experiments in which the participants were given a description of several hypothetical strangers’ attitudes and beliefs. They were then asked which stranger they would most enjoy having as a co-worker. The subjects consistently preferred the company of strangers with attitudes similar to their own. Opposites repel.
If you’re inclined to form strong emotional responses to images of violence or human suffering, and over the course of your formative years, most of the people you meet who respond to these images with comparable affect turn out to be Democrats, it may produce a commonality of experience. This is likely to be closer to a gut instinct than a rational choice, but if you meet enough Democrats who share that experience, sooner or later you may start carrying the card yourself. This theory suggests that political identity starts with a shared temperament and only afterward deposits a layer of positions on the issues.
Seeing political identity as a reflection of common brain architecture helps explain another longstanding riddle: why do people vote against their immediate interests? Why do blue-collar Republicans and limousine liberals exist? The question becomes less puzzling if you assume that: 1) people choose parties primarily because they desire the companionship of people who share their cognitive wiring, and 2) they desire that companionship so much they’re willing to pay for the privilege.
If the U.C.L.A. results hold water over time, it won’t justify the Armey theory that liberals are somehow less rational than conservatives. For 20 years we have known that the brain’s emotional systems are critical to logical decision-making. People who suffer from damaged or impaired emotional systems can score well on logic tests but often display markedly irrational behavior in everyday life.
Speaking of logic, once we psychologists uncover the mystery of political affiliations, it would behoove us to examine the variables underlying voting behavior. Despite the vitriol displayed by each political party toward the other, Americans as a whole, for the most part, opt out of the electoral process In the 2000 Presidential election, for instance, only around 100 million voters turned out. This number represented about 50% of the total voting age population in this country. Further, more than 50 million registered voters chose not to vote. Surveys indicate that the vast majority of these non-voters cited that they were too busy, not interested, or were out of town.
The U.S. is currently engaged in a war attempting to bring Democracy to the Middle East. The fact that 50% of Americans, living in a country founded on the principle of democratic voting rights among others, choose to sit at home on election day is rather astonishing. While we are in the process of studying brain activity, let’s take a look at the very questionable brains of those folks who don’t exhibit enough interest in public policy to even participate at the most basic level of the electoral process, voting.
It is reasonable to ask, “is there something intrinsically reductive or fatalistic in connecting political values to brain functioning”? No more so than ascribing them to race or economic background, which we happily do without a second thought. No one denies that social conditions shape political values. But the link between the brain and the politics is still uncharted terrain. Much has been learned in the past decade about the relationship between biological factors and emotions. It has also been demonstrated that psychotherapy in combination with psychotropics provides the most potent intervention for treating emotional disorders such as severe depression. Perhaps the next generation of AAPers will be devising ways to impact the public’s party affiliation choices at an emotional level. For the time being though, we must keep plugging away at increasing psychology’s profile on Capitol Hill by expanding our political influence through AAP and AAP/PLAN working in conjunction with the APA Practice Organization.