How you react to gruesome images could predict your political beliefs

Political beliefs might not be purely rational. 


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Nov 2, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 7:09 am CDT

The Internet is no stranger to gruesome images. Actually, they’re a time-honored tradition here in cyberspace.

But while people look at horrific photos out of morbid curiosity, psychologists have found that pictures are actually a good tool to gain insight into people’s political beliefs, including their ideological position, partisan affiliation, and policy preferences—right down to specifics like gun control and immigration.

After showing 83 men and women photos of of maggots, mutilated carcasses, and gunk in the kitchen sink, liberals and conservatives rated the photos almost exactly the same. However, scientists had another tool. They could analyze a brain scan and predict the subject’s politics with 95 percent accuracy, according to a new research paper.

“Remarkably, we found that the brain’s response to a single disgusting image was enough to predict an individual’s political ideology,” Read Montague, a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute psychology professor, wrote.

Using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on the subjects’ brains to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, researchers saw that they could spot conservatives when showing them horrific pictures by noting increased activity in regions like the basal ganglia, thalamus, and hippocampus.



Liberals, meanwhile, saw increased blood flow to the secondary somatosensory cortex, posterior insula, and precentral gyrus, among other areas.

This is a small sample size from a limited geographic area but the results are intriguing. The researchers suggest this shows that, contrary to popular opinion, political beliefs are not purely rational, and that emotion and cognition are “deeply intertwined.”

“Neuroscience has started to provide rich information about the neurophysiological processes underlying political behavior,” Montague explained. “Our results have important implications for the links between biology, emotions, political ideology, and human nature more fundamentally.”

So the next time you check out that website filled with gore, wear your best tin foil hat. Your brain is giving information away while you’re just sitting there grossed out.

H/T Slashdot | Photo via Allan Afijo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 2, 2014, 5:20 pm CST