Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


A Neuropolitic look at political psychology

In Politics on the Brain: An fMRI Investigation, (a paper forthcoming in Social Neuroscience) Knutson et al. shows that political preferences (whether you prefer George Bush or Hilary Clinton) recruits 2 different neural circuits: one rapid, stereotypic, and emotional - ventromedial PFC and amygdala- and the other more deliberative - anterior prefrontal activations. When subjects were shown a image of a politician faces, both systems fire. Thus it seems that liking/disliking a politician is an affective reaction modulated by other knowledge, probably political values. The strength of affiliation with a party (in this case, Democrat vs. Republican) correlated negatively with PFC activation: thus emotional markers are not principally signs of political orientation, but signs of personal affiliation. Political orientation may modulate personal orientation when, for instance, one agree with a party without endorsing its leader's opinions. Somewhere in Man's Fate, Andre Malraux wrote (I quote approximatively, I cannot find the original quote): "men that follows ideas, in the end, always follows individuals". Most of our cognition is affective, and most of our affections are social. This is why you will always see politician shaking hands, kissing babies and smiling: they recruit brain structures involved in social-affective cognition. Political education, then, should consist in learning how to override these emotional reaction, and thus research on emotional learning are important for democracy.
Another related study might be of interest for neuropolitics int he last edition of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. An article on the neural mechanisms of social fear transmission concludes that learned fear can be "as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences." Thus emotional education (a form of emotional learning) can induce genuine emotions - at least fear.
Together, these studies suggest that "affective political cognition" could be not only theoretically interesting, but highly important for policy making.