Are political views innate or acquired?

Upon declaring your political affiliation, Republican, Democrat or Independent, you are immediately rendered a friend or a foe, safe or unsafe, worth befriending or avoiding. Some may embark upon helping you alter your perspective to match theirs. Others may regard your views as faulty or erroneous and worthy of their enlightenment, or may ponder how a wonderful person like you can be so misguided. If it were solely a matter of information processing, attempting to “enlighten” you may be a sensible approach, but political perspective is now documented to be innate – not predominantly acquired and thus less flexible.

Neuroscientist Darren Schreiber of the University of Exeter and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego reported physiological differences in the brain structures of individuals with various political views.

“Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region of the brain associated with social and self-awareness, while Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body’s fight-or-flight system. These results suggest that Liberals and Conservatives use different cognitive processes in thinking about risk. In fact, brain activity in these two regions alone can be used to predict whether a person is a Democrat or a Republican with 82.9% accuracy, compared to parental affiliations that were only accurate 69.5% of the time.”

In “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults” Ryota Kanai found psychological and physiological differences, “Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and Conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).

Dr. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman reports, “Conservatism is avoidance based; it is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while Liberalism seeks to regulate society through interventions in the interest of social justice.”

In “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives” Dana Carney describes the personality differences between Liberals and Conservatives, “Liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas Conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.”

In “The Righteous Mind” Jonathan Haidt states, “Liberals tend to value caring for people who are vulnerable and sharing resources equally. Conservatives care about those things, too, but for them fairness means proportionality—getting what they deserve based on the amount of effort in. Conservatives also emphasize loyalty and authority, values helpful for maintaining a stable society.”

Whether the differences between Conservatives and Liberals are primarily determined by physiological, familial influences, psychological, temperamental or ideologically factors – it is clear that in order to live together, we must accept each other’s basic proclivities and learn to relate to one another with more curiosity than criticism, with more tolerance than dismissal, with greater motivation to bridge the gap, and mostly with respect and acceptance of each other’s views as valid, valuable and well-intentioned.

Once we act accordingly, the question of whether our views are innate or acquired will no longer be relevant. We will become enriched and better able to create an environment that handles our differences well and enhances us all.





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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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