Fear, Anger and the Republican Mind

By Dr Robin Andrews @squigglyvolcano

A new non-partisan study reveals that, in the United States, Republicans and Democrats show very distinct neurological activity when presented with risk and opportunity.

Full disclosure: I am utterly convinced that the modern-day Republican politician is almost certainly a divisive, hateful, fearful individual. The fact that Donald Trump of all people is leading in the polls at the moment is surely only because selfish, ignorant people believe that just because he’s shouting the loudest – and the U.S. media simply cannot get enough of this blowhard – he must be right. He’s a well-documented racist, homophobe, misogynist and a distorter of well-accepted science. It would be a genuine disgrace to America if he were even chosen as the presidential candidate for the Republican Party, but it doesn’t take much investigating to realise that their entire unique selling point is that most dangerous of human emotions: fear.

As renowned economist Paul Krugman recently wrote in The New York Times, the Republican Party has well and truly “gone off the deep end”. Xenophobia is their primary calling card, and that appeals to the fearful aspects of the human psyche rather than the more empathetic ones. Just yesterday, the Republican Representative Peter King of New York said that taking in Syrian refugees could lead to another “Boston Marathon Bombing”. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has recently declared that at least 10,000 Syrian refugees will be taken in by the United States.

During the shocking Republican debate on Fox News not too long ago, each of the ten candidates leading in their own polls blared endless fearful gibberish at each other and the host, Megyn Kelly. Trump reaffirmed his belief to deport all illegal immigrants back to their host nations, despite the fact that, unlike many European countries, the United States does not have an economic or infrastructural issues with these immigrants, the vast majority of which have been working and integrating themselves with their new country for many years now. He also still wants to build a gigantic wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, preferably with a “beautiful door”. Building a giant wall to separate two nations from each other tends to only be between two nations separated by war – like West and East Germany, or North and South Korea. Mexico and America haven’t been at war since 1848, but hey.

Climate change wasn’t mentioned, but only one candidate – Lindsey Graham – accepts that anthropogenic climate change is accepted science. Two of the candidates – Cruz and Huckabee – are entirely in support of Kim Davis, the homophobic clerk who has been briefly imprisoned for not giving marriage licences to same-sex couples in Kentucky. Human stem cell research – something that the Obama administration was quick to remove any legal barriers to after the Bush administration added them – provides huge advances in medical science, but the Republicans, with all their religious conviction, think it to be hellish and immoral.

During the finalising stages of the Iran nuclear deal, nuclear physicists – not just politicians from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agreed that the agreement would prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least ten years but instead could pursue peaceful nuclear energy generation. Forty-seven Republican senators sent a letter to leaders in Tehran saying that they would do all they can to revoke the agreement should they return to the White House. That was utter madness; fortunately, the agreement now has no hope of being rejected by Congress, and will pass.

So by this point, you’re probably wondering why on Earth this anti-Republican rant – and that is indeed what it is – is appearing in a science column. That, intriguingly enough, is because I mentioned fear and empathy earlier, traits that I feel define Republicans and Democrats, respectively, more often than not.

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE, led by University of Exeter’s Dr Darren Schreiber, a pioneer in the field of neuropolitics, suggest that the “red brain” of a contemporary Republican differs significantly from that of a “blue brain” Democrat. Most studies of this ilk ask the chosen scientific subjects questions that may give an indication as to their political leanings, and always reveal that, unsurprisingly, Democrats are far more liberal – particularly on social issues – than their Republican counterparts, who are far more conservative across the board. This study, however, is quite different.

35 men and 47 women, registered as either a Democrat or a Republican, were invited along to the study, and asked to play a simple gambling game. The first conclusion of the study was that there was no difference in the amount of risk individuals of each political camp were willing to show whilst playing the game. The second conclusion, of far more importance, was how each individual processes risk in their brains.

At the point where a big, risky gamble was required, Democrats showed far more neurological activity in areas of the brain related to processing body cues and emotional feedback. Conversely, the Republican mind showed a far greater propensity towards using the parts of the brain that processes – yep, you guessed it – fear.

The right amygdala is the control centre for the brain that evaluates risk, reward and any associated fear. Studies have also shown that stimulating the right amygdala increases aggressive behaviour in the host; thus, this part of the brain also modulates and regulates aggression, to some degree.

On the other hand, the left posterior insula, the section of the brain that processes visceral emotional cues from the body, is also related to the control and modulation of empathy. With an increased understanding of body language and emotional language, people with a more prominent left posterior insula are more likely to understand what someone else is thinking.

Essentially, the study can be interpreted thusly: both parties use logic centres of the brain to understand patterns and behaviours, but there is a difference in how they get a “feel” for the situation. Democrats tend to understand others by connecting on an emotional level, whereas Republicans base their decisions on fear.

Amazingly, the researchers were able to accurately predict an individual’s political affiliation 82.9% of the time by only looking at their neurological activity whilst they played their simple gambling game, better than knowing someone’s parents’ political affiliation.

The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell had a lot to say about fear. “Collective fear”, he wrote, “stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” He went on to say that “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear.”

The Republican Party of the 21st Century are indeed the political party of fear in the United States, the most powerful nation on Earth. This is a major problem, and having a peek at any of their signature policies or obstructionism provides the reader with plenty to worry about.

Or, as a certain Jedi put it once: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.”

One candidate, Scott Walker, somehow cannot see the irony in this. Plonking a slightly strange tweet on his Twitter account on annual Star Wars Day – the 4th May, naturally – he oddly compared himself to Princess Leia. As the astronomer and science communicator Phil Plait pointed out: isn’t he more Sith than Jedi?

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