The Difference Between Republican and Democratic Brains

The good, the bad, and the ugly from new research that suggests the way political parties perceive who’s behind them and who’s not can affect entire political movements.

An actual human brain displayed inside a glass box, as part of an interactive exhbition 'Brain: a world inside your head', in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 21, 2009.
National Journal
Nov. 21, 2013, 9:10 a.m.

What Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans don’t have in com­mon goes far bey­ond the bal­lot box. Their per­son­al­it­ies, like their core be­liefs and policy ideas, are fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent.

Lib­er­als are cre­at­ive and curi­ous, and tend to be more open to new ex­per­i­ences, while con­ser­vat­ives are more anxious, dis­like change, and ap­pre­ci­ate or­der in their lives. Sci­ent­ists don’t know if polit­ic­al in­terests shape tem­pera­ment, or vice versa, but new re­search sug­gests law­makers’ per­son­al­ity traits play an im­port­ant role in polit­ic­al causes — like for­cing a gov­ern­ment shut­down — and may even de­term­ine if those causes sur­vive.

In a study pub­lished this week in the journ­al Psy­cho­lo­gic­al Sci­ence, re­search­ers asked 300 people in an on­line sur­vey wheth­er they agreed or dis­agreed with both polit­ic­al (“In gen­er­al, I sup­port labor uni­ons”) and non­polit­ic­al state­ments (“I en­joy cof­fee”). They also asked par­ti­cipants to in­dic­ate how much oth­ers who shared their polit­ic­al views would sup­port their at­ti­tudes.

The res­ults showed that lib­er­als un­der­es­tim­ated their levels of par­tis­an sup­port; that is, they thought their be­liefs were dif­fer­ent from their lib­er­al peers, when they ac­tu­ally were not. Con­ser­vat­ives and mod­er­ates, on the oth­er hand, thought their be­liefs were more sim­il­ar to those of oth­er mem­bers of their polit­ic­al group than they ac­tu­ally were, over­stat­ing par­tis­an agree­ment. These pat­terns of think­ing held for top­ics un­re­lated to polit­ics, like per­son­al pref­er­ence for cof­fee.

Real-world polit­ics, however, is where it gets in­ter­est­ing. Demo­crats, think­ing they lack sup­port, struggle to find solid­ar­ity, the re­search­ers con­clude. Re­pub­lic­ans, stick­ing to­geth­er be­cause of a per­ceived abund­ance of sup­port, get mo­bil­ized — and ef­fect change — more quickly.

This party dis­tinc­tion in judg­ment stems from yet an­oth­er fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ence between lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives: the need to feel unique. In the study, lib­er­als re­por­ted a stronger de­sire for unique­ness than did con­ser­vat­ives and mod­er­ates — a strange find­ing for the party that cham­pi­ons so­cial pro­grams, as well as Re­pub­lic­ans who stand for an Ayn Rand in­di­vidu­al­ism.

That think­ing, says study coau­thor Chadly Stern, a psy­cho­lo­gic­al sci­ent­ist at New York Uni­versity, can un­der­mine pro­gress. Con­form­ity, at face value, works bet­ter. Con­ser­vat­ives, by band­ing to­geth­er un­der one lead­er, don’t waste time agree­ing with each oth­er, Stern says. One prime ex­ample? The tea party, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Demo­crats, mean­while, are slow to mo­bil­ize. Stern cites the frac­tured Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment as one ex­ample, the 2010 re­peal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as an­oth­er, which the re­search­er says “flew through” Con­gress des­pite Demo­crats’ con­cern it wasn’t go­ing to make it. The cur­rent splin­ter­ing of the Demo­crat­ic Party in the face the flawed rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act is evid­ence of the lib­er­al tend­ency to dis­like ste­reo­types, Stern says. Demo­crats lack a lead­er that could, hy­po­thet­ic­ally, keep them on mes­sage like con­ser­vat­ive fig­ures do for their group.

But Re­pub­lic­ans’ col­lect­ive think­ing can, in some cases, back­fire. Take last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. “There was this tend­ency to think, among Re­pub­lic­ans, that there was a lot of sup­port for [Mitt] Rom­ney, but then the night of the elec­tion, that il­lus­ory con­sensus was shattered,” Stern says. Per­haps there is no bet­ter ex­ample of that than what happened im­me­di­ately after Fox News called Ohio — and sub­sequently, the elec­tion — for Pres­id­ent Obama. Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Karl Rove, con­vinced Rom­ney would win, re­fused to ac­cept the res­ults, re­peat­ing vot­ing num­bers he’d crunched that in­dic­ated the elec­tion was too early to call. Even­tu­ally, a baffled Me­gyn Kelly asked a ram­bling Rove, “Is this just math that you do as a Re­pub­lic­an to make your­self feel bet­ter, or is this real?”

By over­es­tim­at­ing sup­port, Re­pub­lic­ans may get things done, but they can trap them­selves in an ideo­lo­gic­al bubble, fur­ther in­flat­ing the pop­ular­ity of con­ser­vat­ive views. That en­vir­on­ment, as evid­enced by the Rove in­cid­ent, can come crash­ing down when their per­cep­tion of sup­port is wrong.

As for mod­er­ates, Stern says they tend to con­form un­less they feel strongly mo­tiv­ated to de­vi­ate from the middle on a giv­en is­sue. They be­lieve there are lots more mod­er­ates like them­selves out there, tend­ing to over­es­tim­ate the com­mon­al­ity of their be­liefs.

When it comes to le­gis­lat­ing, con­sensus is cru­cial for so­cial change. Reach­ing it, however, doesn’t al­ways mean things will go as planned.

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