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Understanding the Self-Righteous Political Brain: The First Step in Healing the Political Divide


I have a PhD in political science. I also think of myself as a person with a rational mind. With these tools, I study political issues in depth, weigh the consequences carefully, and come to an objective decision as to what best represents my interests and those of the country. I think of people with opposing views, especially those with less education, as being ruled by emotion and thus unable to understand what is in their best interest. Unfortunately for me, neurological science tells a different story. I, in fact, share much more with the rural Trump voter than I care to admit.

The human brain contains a network of billions of neurons (brain cells) that work together to define our world. Nature did not start with a master plan on how this would work. Instead the brain was constructed through natural selection, a process that rewards organisms that are best suited to meet the challenges of their environment. This is a process that has been in operation for more than a billion years and proceeds through fits and starts.

With regard to the human brain, emotions developed millions of years before reason. These human emotions helped to channel behavior in ways that fostered evolutionary success. Reason eventually came onto the scene as a tool for these emotions to help them achieve their goals. As a result, reason became a tool for rationalization rather than a tool for objective decision making.

According to Drew Westen in The Political Brain: The Fate of the Nation, the political brain is an emotional one. As David Hume pointed out many years ago, reason is a slave of the passions. Again, according to Westen, this is as true for intellectuals as it is for the less educated. Although intellectuals may be better at arguing their case, their brains emerged from the same evolutionary process. As I suggest in the introduction, we intellectuals are better at seeing the truth of Hume’s maxim in others then we are in seeing it in ourselves. In point of evolutionary fact, the Trump voter and I have much in common. As a result, I have no right to look down on or to disparage them without applying the same standards of judgment to myself.

A related topic deals with the question of the origin of our political values. I am a political liberal. Science tells me that approximately fifty percent of my political orientation can be explained by the effect of my genetic inheritance on the working of my brain.

Brain tissue is made up of more than ten billion neurons. These cells are organized into circuits, thousands of miles of them. When neurons become active, they fire an electrical current, which travels along dendrites that function as tiny wires. Synapses are spaces along this highway. There are more than ten trillion of them. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that flood these spaces and function as a bridge. These chemicals slow down, speed up or change the direction of the traveling neurons.

High levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are known to lower aggression as are low levels of the hormone testosterone. High levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are linked to positive emotions and an optimistic view of the world. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that rewards circuits in the brain connected to inhibition and avoidance. People with high levels of norepinephrine organize their lives around preventing unpleasant events from happening. People with low levels seek novel and exciting experiences.

Though my brain has not been tested for neurotransmitter levels, my personality fits the pattern of low levels of testosterone and norepinephrine with contrasting high levels of serotonin and dopamine. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt demonstrates through a series of impressive statistical studies how such a brain chemistry would predispose me toward liberal political values. As I stated above, genetics explains about half of our political orientation. Brain chemistry provides the raw material for how we think politically, but nothing is set in stone.

An important nonbiological factor in determining our political orientation is party identification which we usually inherit from our parents. Parental values have an important influence on their children. In my case, my parents were staunch Republicans which should have moderated my political liberalism. It most likely would have; however, I have a rare learning style. I am a divergent learner, a small subset of the population whose mind must learn on its own. We reject parents, teachers, and other authority figures and insist that we learn on our own terms in our own way. Note that my learning style is another genetic factor that helps to explain my political orientation.

Voting studies also show that important political learning can take place for older teens and young adults through significant life experiences. I am a child of the sixties. My college days were spent protesting the Vietnam War and racial injustice while advocating for women’s rights and environmental health.  These activities along with the reinforcing support from millions of my generation cemented my political orientation.

As a Christian, I have often thought my political liberalism brought me in closer alignment with the teachings of Jesus in contrast to my brothers and sisters on the Christian right. When I write checks, I use the name Paul. Rick is a nickname. What does science say about my name? It says I am Paul, not Saint Paul as I would like to believe. If one were to reroll the cosmic dice, my brain chemistry could be very different. Heaven forbid; I could look out at the world as a small government conservative.

All of this came into focus last week when we had two friends over for dinner. It was right after the election; and so, of course, we talked about politics. Carol, the wife of my friend Steve, wanted to know my party affiliation. Democrat, I responded; but she wanted additional information which prompted me to respond that I leaned toward the progressive wing.

“Oh, my,” she said. “You and Steve are polar opposites.” This could have presented a real problem, but Steve is a good guy, a highly intelligent physician with a healthy ego.

At one point in the conversation Steve expressed concern over how a President Biden would deal with Iran. I opined that returning to the nuclear agreement was a good thing, that coupled with a policy of engagement there was a real chance in changing the dynamics of our relationship. They were both skeptical, but they listened politely and let me present my case.

Upon completion, Steve looked across at me and smiled. “That was interesting, Rick. I learned several things I had never considered before. I will have to think about this further.”

When they were gone and I was doing the dishes, I thought to myself: Steve listened. He was willing to learn. Though I cannot change my brain chemistry and thus the way I see the world, I too can listen. Science tells me that’s a good idea because I certainly have no monopoly of what is right.

Readers interested in pursuing this subject further should consult Decartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio and The Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux for brain chemistry and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and The Political Brain by Drew Westen for the functioning of the political brain.

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