Politicians who break party lines elicit stronger brain responses, new imaging study reveals

New imaging evidence suggests that political statements deviating from traditional party beliefs elicit a stronger brain response compared to what many consider to be conventional party positions.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyze brain regions in 58 participants, sharing their findings Monday. After reading statements inconsistent with conventional political affiliations, fMRI showed increased activity in two areas involved in cognitive functioning, essentially perking up participants’ awareness levels.

“The biggest takeaway is that people paid more attention to uncertainty when it was attached to the consistent information, and they were more likely to dismiss it when it was attached to the inconsistent information," said Ingrid Hass, a political psychologist at the university’s Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior. "In these brain regions, the most activation was to incongruent trials that were certain.”

For example, Hass explained, there’s a stronger neurological response happening when a Republican indicates a position favoring new taxes, or a Democratic politician criticizes environmental regulations.

They came to their conclusions after using fMRI to examine the insula and anterior cingular cortex in 58 participants as they evaluated policy positions attributed to hypothetical political candidates (two Democrats, two Republicans) During the study, individuals were also shown a sliding scale indicating how strongly each candidate felt about their stance.

The group explained that individuals had a stronger response if they were completely sure the candidate was straying from party beliefs, rather than if there was only a sneaking suspicion with lingering uncertainty.

Importantly, last summer a noted Duke University fMRI researcher gained attention after he found such brain studies are not as insightful as previously thought. He did note that fMRI research is useful for understanding the general brain structures involved in specific tasks but explained this information isn’t reliable for drawing conclusions about an individual’s future behavior.

Despite this, Haas and colleagues believe their findings may answer the running question regarding why politicians frequently mask or downplay their opinions.

"Our work points to a reason why politicians might deploy uncertainty in a strategic way," Haas added. "If a politician has a position that is definitely incongruent from the party's stated position, the idea is that rather than put that out there, given that people might grasp onto it and pay more attention to it, it might be strategic for them to mask their true positions instead."

Read the entire study published in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions B here.