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Brain activity increases when politicians are inconsistent with party’s platform


UA professor Frank Gonzalez recently conducted a study on how brain activity in certain areas increases when politicians deviate from party platforms. Photo Courtesy: the School of Government and Public Policy.

Using functional MRI brain scanning technology, researchers within the field of political neuroscience under a project titled “Political Uncertainty Moderates Neural Evaluation of Incongruent Policy Positions,” found that brain activity in certain areas increases when politicians deviate from party platforms. 

According to Frank Gonzalez, assistant professor in the school of government and public policy at the University of Arizona and co-author of the paper, “Political neuroscience allows us to . . . get an as direct as possible nuanced look at the specific psychological mechanisms that are underlying these differences in people’s political opinions and how people evaluate politics more broadly. The importance of mechanisms understanding the psychological and neural mechanisms of political evaluations is . . . the determining factor in how successful interventions for change are going to be.”

Consistent with the expectation of the researchers, the brain activity of fifty-eight participants, all from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, increased in certain regions when they noticed incongruent statements made with a higher degree of certainty by hypothetical political candidates.  

According to Gonzalez, participants engaged in four blocks or sections, each containing a different hypothetical political candidate and approximately sixty of the candidate’s statements. Each block combined different types of statements, which were incongruent or congruent and certain or uncertain. 

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Congruence is related to whether or not the statement of the political candidate deviated from the party platform. Researchers told the participants beforehand if the candidate was a Democrat or Republican, setting up the participant’s expectations as to what the policy positions of the candidate would probably be. 

“We had a certain [smaller] percentage of statements that deviated from the party norm, so a Democrat that all of a sudden was anti-immigration or a Republican who was pro-higher taxes,” Gonzalez said.

According to Melissa Baker, co-author, teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California Merced, a statement of uncertainty described the candidate’s position as “may support.” 

Besides incongruity in certain statements, certainty versus uncertainty within congruent statements was also a significant finding.

“There is more activation for the uncertain congruent statements than there was for the certain congruent statements . . .  Even when statements kind of matched expectations based on party, if you introduced just a little bit of uncertainty it does matter for how people are processing the information,” Baker said.

The project, also developed by lead author Ingrid Haas, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was published February 22nd, 2021 but collected data in 2016.

“This is a second of two papers so far of a larger research agenda that’s mostly trying to understand how people process uncertainty specifically in a political context,” Baker said.

Gonzalez, whose focus is generally on the influence of race on political evaluations, mentioned that the project used a functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the level of activity in the brain by tracking iron in the blood to examine which specific areas of the brain received more blood flow. The fMRI provides a 3D picture of the brain through a process known as spatial resolution. 

Gonzalez described the project’s confinement on analyses of two areas of the brain that can detect inconsistencies: the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in decision-making and the insula, which deals with error detection and inhibition. 

“We tend to think of [the ACC and insula] as these mediating pathways between the . . . emotional centers like the amygdala and the executive functioning centers like the prefrontal cortex . . . So this translation process between your emotions and your higher-level thought, that’s where we tended to see the most activity.” Gonzalez said.

However, Baker noted, “One important thing to emphasize in social neuroscience research is that areas of the brain . . . aren’t operating on their own. So when we think about the implications of these studies . . . your entire brain works together to process these things.”

Mentioning the limitations, Gonzalez pointed out that while fifty-eight participants is a good sample size in MRI research due to its cumbersome and expensive nature,  the project still has statistical limitations. To fix these issues, the researchers kept every variable not being manipulated as consistent and context-neutral as possible, such as leaving out potential names for candidates and displaying the candidates as all-male and all-white.

Both Baker and Gonzalez discussed possibilities for future research including looking at how congruence influences the likelihood of voting for a candidate, to what degree consistency is a negative or positive attribute and conducting a similar study that examines other possible relevant areas of the brain.

“Consistency [tends] to be one of the most valued traits in a politician . . . Which is interesting because the implications for democracy [are that] you want consistency and predictability from a candidate, but, at the same time, you also want candidates to be able to adjust their positions based on new information or changing times . . .” Gonzalez said.

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