The Neuroscience of Political Behavior

Morgan Levy, MD
Levystien Productions
Parker, Colorado
Copyright 2012
2,700 words


Have you ever wondered why humans act so silly when it comes to politics?

Can't we have intellectual conversations and work together taking everyone's ideas into account?   Can't we agree to disagree and move on?  Can't we figure out how to solve problems together and then sit down at the same dinner table and be friends?  Why is it that "sticking to principles" is a good thing?  When faced with evidence that your previously held belief is wrong you should double down and become more entrenched in your wrong belief?  Really?

Are we just stupid? 

Are we so selfish that we are incapable of teamwork?

Are some people truly evil?

OK, well no, no, no and no....You see, the thing of it is, is...he...he...the thing of it is, is...our brains evolved to adapt to a changing environment and this adaptation produced some unique abilities that allowed us to be the only surviving hominid species.  These unique abilities include sensory integration, complex language, and empathy.  These things allowed us to develop an unprecedented level of social, or political, thinking and behavior which enabled us to work together as a team in small groups.

The only reason that these adaptations look silly now is because the environment has changed too quickly for our DNA to keep pace.  We have become a species that is lost in time.

You see, we have brains that are programmed to do certain types of thinking and to not do certain other types of thinking.  For example, our brains don't navigate dark caves or construct complex webs very well but our brains do play games such as football extremely well.  The reason our brains can organize a small egalitarian group for combat with another small group is that the environment out on the savannah favored groups that could do that.  And our brains evolved to adapt to that environment.

The environmental pressures out on the savannah were intense.  The alpha male type society that we enjoyed when we lived in the jungle was selected against.  Teamwork became the best strategy.  A team whose members all had different strengths.  To survive we had to be more than just running backs and a quarterback.  We needed to be a group of linemen, linebackers, defensive backs, punters, field goal kickers, coaches, water boys, etc. that could all organize and work together.  Even still, we could barely evolve fast enough to keep up with the changing environment.

Not just our bodies but our brains change over time.  The underlying structure and function of our brains change over time.  The actual genetic blue print changes.  As time goes by this change occurs fast for simple changes, medium speed for intermediate changes, and slow for complex changes.  That works great so long as the environment changes at a reasonable rate.  If the changing environment is out of sync with an evolving species, then that species is in trouble. 

The result is that a species either goes extinct or ends up lost in time.  By that I mean...what a species evolved to do is not exactly what they need to be able to do in the current environment.  And that is where we are. 

Our brains want to do lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.  All things that worked great in the not too distant past.

Unfortunately, the environment has changed.  We settled down and began growing food and raising livestock so small groups quickly became huge societies.  Large agrarian societies produced kings and rules.  Greed, lust and those other things needed to be controlled.

We became a political species but we are still genetically programmed to be more of a hunting and gathering species.

We evolved a dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex that allows us to think outside of our programming.  We also evolved a dorso-medial prefrontal cortex which does visceral or instinctual thinking.  This evolution happened because it provided a selective advantage but maybe it was too much of an advantage.  Maybe we evolved too fast or too far?

Compared with gut instincts, thinking outside our programming is a more recently evolved trait.  It tends to be more fallible and less reliable.    

Our gut thinking and logical thinking are on a bell curve that is heavily skewed in the direction of the gut.  Instinctual thinking is an older way of thinking and the brain circuits that do it are significantly more redundant.  Some of us are capable under the right circumstances and with practice to sometimes be a little bit logical but innate thinking is our default program. Our ability to do logical thinking is fragile and can easily be eliminated due to fatigue, intoxication, anxiety or anger. 

In addition to being awake, alert, calm, and practiced there is one more requirement to think logically.  You must be genetically endowed with a brain that lies on the skewed low part of the graph.  In other words, most people just don't have the ability to do much logical thinking.

A major problem with logical thinking is that it requires premises that are true in order to produce accurate conclusions.  This requires education.  You have to be informed.  Your brain must have the relevant intel in order for logical thinking to result in positive outcomes.  Therefore, not only are most of us incapable of doing logical thinking but those of us that can do it rarely have enough accurate intel to make it a valuable way to think.  

The challenge that faced evolution was to come up with a cognitive machine that could survive with little or no good intel.  The machine it came up with was one that relied on probabilities regulated by emotion.  It could quickly pick out the two or three most likely answer choices and then choose the one that feels the best. This also allowed for a much larger amount of information to be processed than could be manipulated by the pre-frontal cortex alone.

Logical thinking is recently evolved, unique to humans, faulty, and requires alertness, wakefulness, calmness, practice, and education in order to work.

The way our default brain programming works is like this:  First, you feel something that is positive or negative.  Then, you rationalize why the thing that caused this feeling is either good or bad.  If the feeling is good then you make up reasons why the thing is good.  If the feeling is bad then you come up with reasons why the thing is bad. The whole time your brain is processing way more information than you are consciously aware of and the conclusion is one that has a probability of producing a positive outcome.  Reality is irrelevant.

For example, here in Colorado we voted to legalize the possession of marijuana yesterday. 

My wife said, "That is horrible!"

I asked, "Why?"

She said, "Because lots of people will drive impaired and cause accidents."

I told her,  "Marijuana does not cause intoxication in the same way that alcohol does.  People who smoke marijuana become impaired but they are aware of the impairment and drive more cautiously.  They drive poorly on a test track under controlled conditions but no reliable study has ever demonstrated that marijuana is correlated with automobile accidents."   

She said, "Well, people will become addicted and develop health problems."

I told her, "The addiction rate is 9% but there is not a dangerous withdrawal syndrome.  There are some health concerns in heavy long term users but the ill effects from a health standpoint for most users are relatively minimal compared with alcohol and tobacco."

Then she said, "Well ... it can cause heart attacks."

I told her, "It causes increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure so it can induce a heart attack in a patient with heart disease but it can not cause the heart disease in the first place." 

She said, "Cancer?"

I said, "Well, for some rare cancers that is a maybe yes in chronic long term users but no one has really shown a connection to lung cancer yet.  There might be a connection but it is nothing like tobacco."

Finally she said, "Well, I don't know ... but I know it's bad."

This is an example of a typical human thought process.  She hears about something that she has no knowledge about.  There is an initial gut level response that is influenced by what she thinks others in her small group think.  The word marijuana causes her anterior cingulate cortex to send a signal to her adrenal glands that cause her stomach to feel slightly bad.  Then, she attempts to rationalize why she feels bad.  She begins to make up reasons why marijuana is, in fact, bad.  Then, and this is the funny part, when confronted with evidence to the contrary she simply rejects it.  But, if the evidence had agreed with her gut she would have accepted it even if it made no logical sense.  Wow!

That is how our brains work.  That is how all brains work, including mine.

So, let's put this in the context of a political issue.

Let's say that this guy named Charles figured out a new scientific idea about the origin of species and millions of scientists over the past 150 years have confirmed this idea.  But this other guy named Rufus went to school in the Tennessee back country where a science class was not offered.  Rufus doesn't know anything about natural selection.  Rufus hears some guy at a bar yell that some other guy should go back to the tree he evolved from.  Rufus feels bad.   

Rufus happens to be a guy who is genetically predisposed to think mostly with his gut.  He doesn't understand the science but it feels bad so he begins to rationalize why it is wrong.  He starts making stuff up.  He says, "We could not have evolved from monkeys because the earth has only existed for six thousand years and that is not enough time for this evolution thingy to have happened."

I explain the science to him and the most marvelous thing happens.  He doubles down!

He becomes more entrenched in his belief when presented with evidence to the contrary. 

He and I are having this conversation at the local school board meeting.  I am a democrat and he is a republican. (This is an over-generalization just to make a point about how we think.)

He is not stupid.  He is not selfish.  He is not evil.  Although, in frustration, I call him all of those things resulting in us taking off our jackets and moving the conversation to the alley.  You see, when I get emotional my brain is unable to think logically and my default program kicks in.

OK, let's just stop and think about this for a minute.  In reality, I am the weird one.  His brain is working the way a human brain classically works.  I am the one who is thinking outside of our programming.   That is ... until I got mad.

Here is a very important point.  We both need each other.  If we had to band together as a group to defeat some other group of humans we would need each other.  He would need me to think outside the box and come up with a logical plan and I would need him to organize the team and carry it out.  We need democrats in the legislature and Republicans in the military, as an over-generalized way to put it.

Republicans may not be very good at understanding the realities of science, history, or economics but Democrats are not very good at forming a cohesive team for the purpose of inter-group competition.  I apologize for the extreme over-generalization but it was just to make a point about how our brains function.     


Let me explain some basic brain function as it relates to political behavior.  This will not be exhaustive, just a few tidbits. 

First, the cerebral cortex is the outer most surface of the brain and is where all higher order thought processes occur.  It is a 2-4mm thick sheet that when expanded would cover the area of a tennis court.  It is crinkled up like a piece of paper in order to fit in the cranial cavity.  The most anterior part is called the pre-frontal cortex and immediately posterior to the pre-frontal cortex is the frontal cortex.  Then, doubled in behind the frontal cortex is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). 

The ACC is located between the frontal cortex where cognitive processes occur and the midbrain where more visceral and emotional thought is processed.  There are 5 circuits that run through these structures connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the midbrain in a feedback loop. 

The evolutionarily older brain is more medial and deep and the younger brain is more anterior and lateral.  The older and more central brain connects to the rest of the body.  Also, in a feedback loop.

So, someone yells, "Hey you idiot!"

The sound enters your ear where it causes some bones to bounce around and change the sounds into electrical input.  The resulting neural transmission takes this information to your auditory cortex in the temporal lobe on the left side of your brain.  The concepts are then sent to the frontal lobe to be manipulated.  As they are being processed there is input from memory that may have been laid down in the mammillary bodies deep in the midbrain but are now stored extensively throughout the cortex.  The mixing and manipulating of this information occurs in a feedback loop with midbrain structures that are connected to bodily organs such as heart and adrenal glands. 

The result is that you feel bad in your stomach and this sensory information feeds back to the pre-frontal cortex which attempts to rationalize why you feel bad.  The interpretation of the original sensory input that resulted in stimulation of the adrenals to produce a negative affect was heavily influenced by memory information.  It evolved this way so you would not keep repeating the same mistakes.

For example, if you see your brother die after eating an Oleander, then you will have a negative emotion to the idea of eating any flower.  An illogical assumption that has high survivability value.  Remember, we are here because we survived, not because we were right.

Depending on your life experience and the situation you are currently in, your brain might interpret the statement, "Hey you idiot!," as endearing, neutral or threatening regardless of how it was actually intended.  This is how a large number of bar fights occur.  This happens in bars because that is a place where the dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex is taken off-line by alcohol. 

The bottom line is that fighting or fleeing has greater survivability than standing around and intricately pointing out to someone how really wrong they are.  We can do that now because we have good legal systems with strong enforcement and an expectation of justice but in the past it might not have been such a safe thing to say.  It may still not be depending on the situation.

In conclusion, political behavior in our species is what it is.  I don't think we should expect everyone to start thinking logically all the time or to have adequate intel to make thinking logically the logical way to think.  What we need to do is allow everyone to think in all the ways that everyone thinks and then arrange all that thinking so that we have the highest likelihood of producing a good outcome.  In order to do this we do not need to change anyone.  We just need to get everyone to learn how we all think and why.  Then, we can better tolerate each other. 

For example, if I understand that you want to limit free trade because you illogically fear a communist takeover, then I can be psychologically sophisticated and talk to your fear instead of your wallet.  Interestingly, if I do that you will feel that I care and you will feel more connected to me.  And I will understand that we need to do free trade in a way that does not frighten you. 

Also, your illogical fear may contain more survivability value than my illogically logical brain could ever fathom!

-Morgan Levy, MD




Verhulst, B., et al. (2010) The nature of the relationship between personality traits and 519 political attitudes. Personality and Individual Differences 49, 306-316