Commonalities Shared by Polarized Brains

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Commonalities Shared by Polarized Brains

Jim Windell

           Political polarization has to do with viewing the world with an ideological bias. But how does this come about? Or, perhaps more precisely, why does political partisanship seem to be increasing?

           Questions like these have been asked more frequently recently, although they may have been raised since the early 1930s.

           Yet, it is not just about viewing the world with a conservative bias. It also has to do with seeing things through a liberal lens as well. The real question, though, is: What is the difference between those people who view the world in a political polarized way and those who do not view the world that way?

           Political scientists in the 1950s and since began to answer the question by theorizing that political polarization was associated with an inability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. But what has not really been apparent in the theorizing is whether there are biological mechanisms through which such biased perceptions arise.

           A new study tends to shed some light on these questions and concerns. This study, coming out of Brown University, was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

           To investigate questions about political polarization, scientists at Brown University measured and compared the brain activity of committed partisans (both liberals and conservatives) as they watched real political debates and news broadcasts. Seeking to determine whether and how intolerance for uncertainty shapes how political information is processed in the brain, the researchers recruited 22 committed liberals and 22 conservatives. They used fMRI technology to measure brain activity while participants watched three types of videos: a neutrally worded news segment on a politically charged topic, an inflammatory debate segment and a non-political nature documentary.

           After the viewing session, the participants answered questions about their comprehension and judgment of the videos and completed an extensive survey with five political and three cognitive questionnaires designed to measure traits like intolerance of uncertainty.

           According to study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown, "We used relatively new methods to look at whether a trait like intolerance of uncertainty exacerbates polarization, and to examine if individual differences in patterns of brain activity synchronize to other individuals that hold like-minded beliefs."

           FeldmanHall and his colleagues found that polarization was indeed exacerbated by intolerance of uncertainty: liberals with this trait tended to be more liberal in how they viewed political events, conservatives with this trait tended to be more conservative. Yet the same neural mechanisms was at work, pushing the partisans into their different ideological camps.

           When the researchers analyzed participants' brain activity while processing the videos, they discovered that neural responses diverged between liberals and conservatives, reflecting differences in the subjective interpretation of the footage. People who identified strongly as liberal processed political content much in the same way and at the same time – which the researchers refer to as neural synchrony. Likewise, the brains of those who identified as conservative were also in sync when processing political content.

           "If you are a politically polarized person, your brain syncs up with like-minded individuals in your party to perceive political information in the same way," FeldmanHall said.

           This polarized perception was exacerbated by the personality trait of intolerance of uncertainty. Those participants – of any ideology – who were less tolerant to uncertainty in daily life (as reported on their survey responses) had more ideologically polarized brain responses than those who are better able to tolerate uncertainty.

           "This suggests that aversion to uncertainty governs how the brain processes political information to form black-and-white interpretations of inflammatory political content," the researchers wrote in the study.

           Why are the findings of this study important?

           Jeroen van Baar, study co-author and a former post-doctoral researcher at Brown, said the findings are important because they show that factors other than political beliefs themselves can influence individuals' ideological biases.

           "We found that polarized perception – ideologically warped perceptions of the same reality – was strongest in people with the lowest tolerance for uncertainty in general," said van Baar, who is now a research associate at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. "This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising – and potentially solvable – factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life."

            Also, van Baar points out that these findings suggest that political partisans may be able to see eye to eye – provided they find the right way to communicate.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

van Baar, J.M., Halpern, D.J., & FeldmanHall, O.(2021). Intolerance of uncertainty modulates brain-to-brain synchrony during politically polarized perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118 (20): e2022491118 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022491118

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