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Brain scans can predict political ideologies, Ohio State study finds

United States map with a split blue and red background
Rob Atkins

Researchers often look at factors like education or income level, family ties and more to get a sense of what your political ideology might be. But a new Ohio State University study shows brain scans are a more accurate predictor of a person's political ideologies.

When Ohio State doctoral candidate Seo-Eun Yang looked at MRI’s of her subject’s brains, she found scans could accurately determine political ideology most of the time.

“When we only use those demographic variables, the accuracy rate is around like 65 or 70%. But after we add the brain scan images and brain scan information, we can accurately predict someone’s political affiliation around 80%,” Yang said.

Yang said this study showed activations of specific regions of the brain were most strongly associated with political affiliation. When 174 adults performed standard tasks in an MRI machine, different partisan responses were triggered.

Brain scans of people taken while they performed various tasks — and even doing nothing — accurately predicted whether they were politically conservative or liberal, according to the largest study of its kind.

Three tasks stood out with particularly strong links. One was an empathy task. In that one, subjects were shown photos of emotional people with neutral, happy, sad, and fearful faces. The second task looked at episodic memory and the third was a task where participants could win or lose money based on how quickly they pushed a button.

Only the scans of the reward task could predict political extremism — those who said they were very conservative or very liberal. And only the empathy task, consisting of emotional faces, was significantly associated with moderate ideology.

The study, published recently in the journal PNAS Nexus, is the largest to date to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain to study political ideology. Yang said it breaks new ground.

"This is really a good breakthrough because no literature so far actually predicts political ideology purely based on the biological marks so our research can contribute some kind of scientific advancement," Yang said.

Yang did the work as a doctoral student at Ohio State but she is now an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.