Your Reaction To An Image Of Maggots Might Determine If You Are Liberal Or Conservative

Some surprising research has come out of Virginia Tech. A group of international scientists has discovered that your brain’s response to disgusting images might be able to predict whether you are a liberal or conservative.  The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Current Biology.  Participants in the study were hooked up to a brain scanner then shown images of disgusting scenes such as, rotting carcasses, dirty toilets, and kitchen sink gunk. Participants were also shown neutral images, as well as pleasant images like babies and landscapes.

“Disgusting images generate neural responses that are highly predictive of political orientation even when those neural responses don’t correspond with an individual’s conscious reaction to the images,” said Read Montague, a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute professor who led the study. “Remarkably, we found that the brain’s response to a single disgusting image was enough to predict an individual’s political ideology.”

The second part of the study had the participants then take a political survey that featured questions on hot topic issues like gay marriage and school prayer. Using fMRI scans of brain activity, the scientists were able to predict the answers from the political survey that participants took with an accuracy of 95%-98% based on the level of reactivity participants’ brains underwent .

“A single disgusting image was sufficient to predict each subject’s political orientation,” Montague says. “I haven’t seen such clean predictive results in any other functional imaging experiments in our lab or others.”

The results suggest that political ideology might be a heritable trait. However, that does not mean that you will automatically be a conservative or liberal because your parents are, your environment would still play a very significant part in shaping your political ideology. Montague points out that people probably do not react to situations on base instinct alone.

“Genetics predetermines height – but not fully,” Montague said in comparison. “Nutrition, sleep, and starvation can all change someone’s ultimate height. But tall people’s children tend to be tall, and that’s a kind of starting point. If we can begin to understand that some automatic reactions to political issues may be simply that – reactions – then we might take the temperature down a bit in the current boiler of political discourse.”

The researchers are not sure why liberals and conservative brains react differently to disgusting images. The team did find that conservatives had more pronounced reaction to images of disgust. Previous studies have shown that conservatives tend to be more anxious and fearful which are associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. This suggests that conservatives are more likely to react strongly out of fear. On the other hand, liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex.

Featured Image Credit: By Dalius Baranauskas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons