Born to Vote Bibi? Genetics May Determine Your Vote

Not only does our anatomy influence our political bent: Conservatives and liberals react differently to non-neutral stimuli such as pictures of spiders and kittens. Or Netanyahu addressing Congress.

Ruth Schuster
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Is your eye drawn to the snake or the kitten? Your answer may determine the way you vote. Illustration by David Lockard, using AP photos
Is your eye drawn to the snake or the kitten? Your answer may determine the way you vote. Illustration by David Lockard, using AP photos
Ruth Schuster

Something in your mind tells you the peace camp makes sense. But when you step into the voting booth, you think of Benjamin Netanyahu defying the White House and addressing Congress to expound on the Iranian nuclear threat, or exploding buses, and you vote for the saber-rattlers on the right.

Or vice versa. Putting aside suspicion that the left-wing leaders might be as lily-livered as the "security" camp asserts, you loftily reject hatemongering and vote liberal.

In either case, you might be succumbing to matter over mind. A mounting body of evidence shows that biology – our primal nature, not only nurture – shapes our perception of the world around us, and even our political orientation.

In other words, you could be hard-wired to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the right-wing "security camp" as they whip up fear about Iran and its nukes. Or you could be biologically biased to see the bright side of life even when hanging on a crucifix, and vote left.

"There are two aspects correlating political opinions with something biological," says Professor David Leiser of the Department of Psychology, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "One is our reactions to non-political stimuli: people on the left and right of the political map react differently. The other thing is physical characteristics of the brain, which differ among liberals and conservatives."

Prof. David Leiser: The fact is that conservatives have a bigger amygdala and liberals have a bigger anterior cingulate cortex.Credit: Dr. David Leisner

Yes, the brains of self-professed conservatives and liberals differ, it turns out. Conservatives and liberals also react differently to non-political pictures, such as butterflies versus beheadings.

Hence the effectiveness of these excruciatingly inane campaign ads. They're speaking to your viscera, not your mind. They're pulling your biological levers and your mind will find a way to rationalize what your gut is telling you. You can't believe that anything so stupid would work, but your biology is listening.

My amygdala is bigger than yours

"We are all brothers" liberals would be appalled to hear this and conservatives would shrug that they figured as much all along, but left-right biological differences start in brain structure.

Self-described conservatives have bigger amygdalas than liberals, according to studies done in Britain and the United States. 

"The amygdala is identified with anxiety, fear, dangers. People more susceptible to anxieties have a bigger amygdala," says Leiser. That certainly fits the description of the "surrounded by enemies" conservative camp in Israel, compared with the leftist "peace is the word" crowd.

Let's not argue about the chicken's amygdala or the egg's (if conservatism leads that ancient part of the brain to grow bigger, or if being born with a big one implies a future of eating red meat and voting Republican). The fact is that conservatives have a bigger one.

Liberals on the other hand have bigger anterior cingulate cortexes, though what that implies isn't clear, Leiser admits. It seems to be involved in emotional regulation and tolerance of uncertainty. Bottom line: "Neurologically we see a difference between conservatives and liberals," he says.

These morphological differences could also explain, postulates Leiser, why the left and right talk at each other but not with each other, both to strikingly little effect. They are hard-wired to understand their side of the political map and cannot really even comprehend what those other idiots are rabbiting on about.

“Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” wrote Jonathan Haidt, an expert on social psychology specializing in morality and emotion: they see "confirmation of their grand narrative" wherever they look.

Hard-wired conservatism and the spider/kitten divide

Conservatives and liberals also have different physiological and behavioral reactions to stimuli that aren't even political in nature.

Leiser, who's studying the connection between physiology and political bent in Israel, explains.

Take self-professed conservatives and liberals and show them a picture of a maggoty wound, or a great hairy spider, its eight eyes glittering. By a significant margin, conservatives will look at the picture longer than liberals, and their physiological reaction will be stronger.

At the sight of the horrible image conservatives blink more and sweat more than left-wingers (the image triggered their fight-or-flight response more strongly than it did for the liberals). Now show the two groups a picture of a kitten, its two eyes shining. Liberals will look at the picture significantly longer than the conservatives.

To a statistically significant degree, conservatives find it harder than liberals to disengage from pictures that frighten because they reinforce their world-view that the world is a scary awful place and they need to defend themselves and their kinfolk, possibly with guns.

Liberals don't find it hard to disengage from pictures that frighten them. They'd rather look at pictures of bunny rabbits that reinforce their world view that everything will be okay.

"People on the right say the others aren't looking reality in the eye, they just want to look at nice things. People on the left accuse the ones on the right of being mesmerized by bad things. To them, once Bibi delivers a horror show that's all the right-wingers will see, instead of considering what the alternatives are," Leiser says.

Chuckling, he notes that if shown pictures of Obama, both conservatives and liberals in America will take a nice long look; the conservatives because they can't stand him, and the liberals because they like him.

Evolutionarily, having the two basic types makes sense, in Leiser's opinion: it's good for the tribe to have a variety of reactions to deal with a variety of situations, some acutely aware of dangers, others keeping hopes up and working to attain it. If all the individuals of a species were clones, with no difference in physiology and behavior, they become more vulnerable to just about everything, from the disappearance of a staple food to climate change. But it could be useful to consider our reactions when watching those television ads by the parties, and ask ourselves why we believe or reject them, and whether we have given it any genuine thought. Or are we just seeking reinforcement of what we already believed.

Of course, when it comes to voting Baruch Marzel or Haneen Zoabi, or less extremely perhaps, Likud or the Zionist camp, our genes are not our destiny. We can try to outthink that genetic angel or demon whispering into our ear and soberly consider where the greater good lies. Good luck with that.

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