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Excuse me potential juror: Is your brain red or blue?

Monday, March 11, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

insulaBrain researchers are increasingly focused on whether our brains are red or blue–as in Democrat or Republican. And there appears to actually be something to it. But it reminds me of that Dr. Seuss book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue FishI confess the charm of Dr. Seuss wore off for me a great deal faster than it did for my kids… Even after reading his books aloud over and over and over and over again to my kids they still loved them. Once they began to read, I had to listen to them read them aloud over and over and over and over again. Of course, my antipathy toward Dr. Seuss was nothing compared to my feelings about a giant purple dinosaur whose name will not be spoken here. Suffice to say, his affections were most assuredly not returned by me. I couldn’t even listen to the YouTube video of that song without shuddering and I shut it off after the first line.

But I digress. In this study (freely accessible online thanks to PLoSONE) researchers look at how having either a Democrat or Republican political affiliation may change how your brain functions during risky decision-making. It is also important to note that these researchers use the descriptors Democrat/Liberal and Republican/Conservative interchangeably. They believe that this idea is valid and point to a 1998 article to explain:

“While party registration is not a perfect proxy for ideology, a realignment that started in the 1970s has caused the two to become increasingly correlated over the past 40 years. Political polarization at both the mass and elite levels have created a period where ideology and partisanship are substantially overlapping concepts. This trend has been even stronger in California (where the participants in this study resided) than in other states.”

Their use of a Democrat = Liberal and Republican = Conservative assumption is further supported by a more recent 2008 article:

However, our evidence indicates that since the 1970s, ideological polarization has increased dramatically among the mass public in the United States as well as among political elites. There are now large differences in outlook between Democrats and Republicans, between red state voters and blue state voters, and between religious voters and secular voters. These divisions are not confined to a small minority of activists—they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed, and active citizens. Moreover, contrary to Fiorina’s suggestion that polarization turns off voters and depresses turnout, our evidence indicates that polarization energizes the electorate and stimulates political participation.”

The current researchers cite prior research on what the brains of liberals and conservatives look like structurally. Using a “simple gambling game”, prior research found that “liberals and conservatives have significantly different brain structure, with liberals showing increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, and conservatives showing increased gray matter volume in the in the amygdala”.

For the current research, the researchers looked at what areas of the brain were used during those gambling tasks and found a difference in what parts of the brain were activated during those decisions. When considering risky decisions:

Democrats relied on the left insula (associated with social awareness and self awareness).

Republicans relied on the right amygdala (associated with the fight or flight system).

What was particularly surprising is that looking at the brain activity alone could show with 82.9% accuracy whether a person had voted Democrat or Republican. (In comparison, a model using the political affiliation of parents to predict a child’s political affiliation has only 69.5% accuracy!) The researchers believe that this information shows that Democrats and Republicans use their brains differently. They also believe that this research may result in new research on voter behavior that can help us understand better how people think.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is yet another finding that makes us wish for added functionality to Google Glass so we could see the “color” of potential juror brains. On the other hand, we sure would want to back up this assumption that political ideation equates to liberal vs. conservative attitudes with pretrial research on a pretty large scale. The size of the researcher’s sample for this study (N = 82; 35 males, 47 females) leaves much to be desired. Even the researchers wish they could have inquired more closely:

“Ideally, we would have also directly inquired about the individuals’ ideological self-identification and attitudes about a set of political issues. However, we were not able to re-contact the participants.”

So it isn’t quite perfect. But it’s a start. So, once having determined that Democrat = Liberal and Republican = Conservative, we have to determine whether it matters. And what the role might be in a particular case of such social or political alignment. In our experience, it has more salience in personal injury cases or cases involving ethnic minorities than it does on complex commercial or intellectual property cases. But ultimately, research on understanding jurors is interesting when it is descriptive, but only worthwhile when it becomes predictive of verdicts.

Schreiber D, Fonzo G, Simmons AN, Dawes CT, Flagan T, Fowler JH, & Paulus MP (2013). Red brain, blue brain: Evaluative processes differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE, 8 (2) PMID: 23418419

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