Bioethics Blogs

This is Your Brain on Politics

It is a tautology to say that our political views affect our attitudes toward various societal issues. If I knew in advance whether you were a conservative or a liberal, for example, I could probably predict with better-than-chance accuracy your views on climate change, teaching evolution in public schools, or genetically modified foods.

But did you know that our political leanings can also alter our perceptions of reality?

This may seem surprising, but it’s true. A growing body of research shows that our political beliefs can influence not only the way our brains interpret and remember scientific information, but even our subjective perceptions of our physical environments.

The Surprising Relationship Between Cognitive Processing and Politics

Take the issue of gun control. A study by Dan Kahan and colleagues found that when presented with scientific results that purportedly tested a politically neutral proposition (the effectiveness of a new skin cream), subjects interpret these data consistent with their pre-tested mathematical reasoning abilities. For this condition, there is no significant difference in performance among Democrats and Republicans with similar reasoning skills. But when the same results are presented as testing a politically charged proposition (the effectiveness of laws banning concealed weapons), subjects’ performance depends heavily on whether they are liberal or conservative. Democrats perform much better as a group compared to Republicans when the results support their political views and vice versa.

John Jost and Erin Hennes obtained similar results studying reactions to climate change science. They found that political leanings predict not only whether a subject will find scientific evidence of climate change to be persuasive, but also how well a subject will be able to remember this evidence.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.