Political Neuroscience Shows Obama Voters Are Different Than Romney Voters

Roger Newman-Norlund
Bulimia stereopticon! No, that’s not it. Bovine spongeography? Barack standardization? Broadside synchronizable? Rats. I just can’t think of a phrase that’s on the tip of me tongue. And I so much need it to describe a new piece of research put out by Roger Newman-Norlund and friends from the University of South Carolina’s Department of—stay with me now—Exercise Science1.

My shocking memory is probably the cause of my brain being “hard-wired” differently than yours. Newman-Norlund has discovered Republicans have brains which are unlike those of Democrats. And it just might be the case Republicans— which I am not though I do tend to vote that way—can’t recall tart phrases as readily as my progressive brothers can.

Seems blue folks and red folks are “naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values.” Evolution, through some mysterious mechanism, has led humans down two paths, one of which is populated with beings who prefer government to remove freedoms at slightly faster rates than citizens who prefer a brave new world to come at a slower pace. So says science.

How was this advance made possible? Newman-Norlund hooked 24—two dozen; roughly 0.00000035% of the world’s population—WEIRD people, i.e. mostly white college kids from identical socio-economic backgrounds, to an electronic phrenology device (a.k.a. MRI). When a self-styled Democrat went under, one area of a computer screen glowed faintly. When instead a Republican was scanned, a slightly different area of the screen glowed.

Not for every Democrat and not for every Republican, some of whom lit up the same screen real estate. But if you took an average of the coordinates of the Democrat and an average of the coordinates of the Republicans, you’d discover, after processing, processing, processing these averages through statistical formulas, then these formulas would announce that, yes, the averages were located in slightly different places. I know this because Newman-Norlund said, “The differences are significant and real.”

“I get all that. Different glows for different folks,” you’re undoubtedly thinking, “But what do areas on a computer screen have to do with Obama versus Romney voters?” That’s easy. Areas of the brain “associated with” “broad social connectedness” blinked for Democrats, and areas “associated with” “tight social connectedness” turned color for Republicans.

“Associated with”? Sure. See, other studies hooked up other very small numbers of WEIRD people to electronic phrenology machines, who were then asked questions researchers thought had something to do with the well known concept of “broad social connectedness”. The researchers then watched their screens to see what turned color. After that, they switched questions, moving into “tight social connectedness” territory and again peered at their screens. Whatever blinked was noted. And there you have it: areas of the brain “associated with” different modes of thinking.

Not only that. The realization that researchers could make computers turn colors launched an entirely new science, now called political neuroscience, which, as the USC press release says, is “still in its infancy”, but great things are envisioned. What better way to medicalize a person’s vote? “He voted Republican? Put it down to bad brain wiring.”

Don’t laugh. Newman-Norlund says his science will soon allow “politicians and campaign strategists [to] learn how to exploit brain differences to make more effective, biologically targeted appeals to voters.” If you thought demographically targeted ads were annoying, just wait until you take a gander at those devised based on your DNA.

And why can’t Democrats, and vice versa, learn from their foolish mistakes? Well, “bridging partisan divides and acting contrary to ideological preferences likely requires going against deeply ingrained biological tendencies.” Still, through what we might call “reeducation”, perhaps in fun, festive areas like camps, “neuron connections can change over time”, but “it’s not something that happens overnight,” Newman-Norlund lamented.

The news is not entirely cheering. The good prof. warned, “we’re not going to wake up one day and all start getting along.” Here, anyway, he does not speak Bifurcation Soliloquy.


Thanks to readers Al and Ann Perrella who tipped me off on this topic.

1Who says there is over-specialization in academia?


  1. ErisGuy

    Soviet psychiatry reborn as neurobiology. Why must academics in the USA volunteer for programs that Russians had to be threatened to do?

  2. George Boggs

    This is so beautiful. The statistical analysis of statistical analysis.

    Back in ’84 (a portentous date) I published a paper on the risks of interpreting scanner (PET, NMR/MRI) images that are themselves the products of statistical signal processing software. I’ll bet not one “scientist” in a thousand knows where those images come from and how they get displayed on the screen. Of course, the technology was so sexy that, well, the rest is history.

    But in a world where dendromancy (the art of predicting the future from tree rings) can be touted as “science” to justify the allocation of trillions of dollars to trickle-down power generation, I suppose it was simply to be expected.

  3. rank sophist

    Love it. These studies are such obvious lies that they should be considered morally wrong. I particularity liked this line:

    Evolution, through some mysterious mechanism, has led humans down two paths, one of which is populated with beings who prefer government to remove freedoms at a slightly faster rates than citizens who prefer a brave new world to come at a slower pace.

  4. Sander van der Wal

    But what about the majority of people, the ones who do not vote in the US elections?

  5. Briggs

    Sander van der Wal,

    Clearly you don’t understand science.

    William Sears,

    Ordered book; thanks.

  6. Gary

    Exercise Science – a/k/a Kinesiology – used to be Physical Education as a college major until it was realized than there was a lot more to the subject than dodgeball and rope climbing.

  7. Rich

    “The (brain) differences could be a result of genetics, experiences, or a combination of both,” he said.”

    “It could be nature. It could be nurture. It could be a combination of both. I’m surprised nobody’s wondered about this before!”

  8. Briggs


    Or there could be no differences whatsoever and the results spurious. What’s more likely?

  9. MattL


    Most disturbingly, this is all consistent with* reduced Arctic ice and CAGW. It’s worse than we thought!

    * I calculate the P-Value at 0.5318008.

  10. Ken

    This topic is a good example of complicated issues being diluted and over-simplified into the sound-bite sized limitations of modern attenation spans.

    There’s undoubtedly something to the findings that Democrats & Republicans have noticably different brain “wiring.” And, based on what we know today about neuroplasticity, this ought not be all that newsworthy.

    Any reasonable (which means lenghty & thoughtful) review of recent findings in brain neuroplasticity (cells that fire together wire together) should bear that out. One good book for the mainstream audience, dealing with stroke victims, mostly, is: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0143113100/?tag=mh0b-20&hvadid=150535070&ref=pd_sl_85xi8k6oww_b

    The gist is that so-called “hard wiring” in the brain isn’t [“hard wired”]–in fact, the brain has proven to be very malleable to an extent nobody imagined, much less even imagined as possible, some 10 or 20 years ago. For a nice little summary see: http://www.axonpotential.com/how-training-changes-the-structure-of-the-brain/

    Another book, http://www.amazon.com/The-Mind-Brain-Neuroplasticity-Mental/dp/0060988479#_ , addresses this in surprising detail as it applied to some studies involving monkeys, and, in violinists that triggered neuroplastic brain responses with disasterous results (ignore the stuff about the “quantum brain” where that author, who ought to have known better, went off on a truly wild tangent).

    One can also find the study results reporting on how London cabbie’s brains changed over a the two years of training they endure (brain changes in areas [hippocampus] associated with spatial relationships). For example: http://www.dw.de/london-taxi-drivers-offer-window-into-brain/a-15586568-1

    Considering that Republicans & Democrats have very different ways of thinking about, and valuing, various things one would reasonably expect to find some hard-wiring differences in their respective brain. The question is, why? And for that I, once again, cannot miss a chance to plug someone else’s book:

    “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness,” by L. Rossiter; available at: http://www.libertymind.com. Chapters 42 or 43 thru Chapter 46 summarizes the developmental psychology.

    OH, and for those of you perusing the above links, or some of’m, you’ll catch on quickly that one’s brain adjusts in direct relation to the stimulus (e.g. London cabbies, that learn the nealry impenetrable maze of ALL of London’s streets, develop larger hippocampus’ in response to their training–such changes have been measured over time…they don’t have this advantage up front). In other words, one makes choices, one acts & then one’s brain adjusts accordingly. With focused and willful exercise (attention) such changes can be dramatic, as stroke recoveries demonstrate.

    Conservative/Republican researchers & reporters readily recognize this — that one’s choices & habits directly induce resulting changes (analogous to a muscle developing in response to exercise). In general, that finding & relationship hardly prompts any reaction beyond intellectual curiosity, if that. Even when some addictions are noted to have a neuroplastic component (e.g. certain foods, behaviors resulting in pleasure, etc. are known to prompt corresponding “wiring” changes that result in strong cravings for continued stimulation by engaging in the food/drug/act that led to thier robust growth)…that will subside, and “unwire,” as the stimulous is removed over time.

    In contrast, Left-Leaning Liberal researchers, or writers reporting such research, will endeavor via very convoluted gymnastics to try & weave cause-effect premises [e.g. evolutionary advantage, if possible] into the findings to attempt to argue, or imply, that one’s brain determines one’s destiny. If there’s a self-inflicted addition, the resulting brain change is noted and asserted, wrongly, to be causitive rather than temporarily contributory. No free will or choice there…just helpless minds & bodies along for the ride. Which, we know with certainty, is an utterly false interpretation of the facts.

  11. Ken

    Here’s a good example of neuroplasticity at work–but the underlying mechanism totally unrecognized for what it is:


    There, the author’s very last sentence is certainly true. The premise, willfull & thoughtful practice, has been tested with athletic activities to prove beyond any doubt that use of one’s mind does make a difference. And there’s every reason to think that similar use in other areas (e.g. associated with values & beliefs rather than physical performance) has a similar effect.

  12. Briggs


    No questioning neuroplasticity from me. But I triple dare anybody to define unambiguously and to measure with zero error “broad social connectedness”, and then repeat for “tight social connectedness.”

    The problem with this, as with many, statistical study is that the results are held with a degree of unwarranted confidence.

  13. Rich

    Briggs, I did put the second line in quotes to show I was paraphrasing. Perhaps “/sarc” would have helped.

    Myself, I think the answer is that reasonable people can reach different conclusions and it doesn’t need a neurologist to explain it.

  14. Ken

    BRIGGS, RE: “..triple dare anybody to define unambiguously and to measure with zero error “broad social connectedness”, and then repeat for “tight social connectedness.””

    WITHIN such fuzzily-defined terms such measures can indeed be “precise” … but at the same time just as meaningless due to the breadth & ambiguity of whatever traits/factors — which remain unknown — the terms encompass.

    In other words, I agree with you.

    But, on the other hand, there may be [or maybe not be] something there lurking in the haze, a real correlation just waiting to be ferreted out for what it really is/they really are. Given the primitive status of psychology (especially with many/most of its practitioners) one can observe some parallels with other developed sciences–where early discoveries were often overlooked, or discounted outright, due to overlays of quackery & superstition. I recall an illustrative story:

    The story goes of some expedition into the Amazon that learned of a recipe by a local tribe involving a magic potion that cured fever. This was concocted by the shaman (or whatever they called that role) selecting a cross-eyed child ( who chewed or one that held his/her eyes crossed while chewing?)a certain plant, spit it in a particular type of gourd carved in the shape of a snake that was hung from a particular tree at a bend in a particular river for some period.

    Hindsight showed that most of the elements of the recipe did not matter, but chewing the certain plant, putting it in a certain freshly cut gourd, and keeping that mix in a humid area fostered growth of a mold that’s come to be known as penicillan. A primitive people, not knowing how things worked failed to recognize what was versus what wasn’t important and, to be safe, repeated every single feature of recipe they’d stumbled upon.

    That general sort of thing persists in a variety of areas by people that some might thing ought to know better (relative to whatever it is they’re doing). Thus, the danger isn’t so much stupid research, or overgeneralized conclusions, etc.–those always will occur…its simplistic “black/white” / “either/or” thinking that leads to wholesale acceptance or rejection of a partial answer that ought to the be springboard for more focused study.

  15. Sander van der Wal

    The problem in a country with two really big parties and a winner-takes-all system is that lots of people will choose one or the other because there is not that much choice. In a country witl lots of political parties (like The Netherlands, with currently 11 parties present in Parliament), there is much more variety. Dutch political scientist recognize two axes, the traditional Left-Right one, and a Progressive-Conservative one. There are Left-Conservative parties (SP) and Right-Progressive ones (D66), next to Left-Progressive (GL) and Right-(a bit) Conservative (VVD).

    And then there are the voters, who are switching parties as it pleases them. A bit hard to explain when you position in the political spectrum is a function of brain wiring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *