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date: 26 November 2020

Political Neuroscience: Understanding How the Brain Makes Political Decisionslocked

  • Ingrid J. Haas, Ingrid J. HaasDepartment of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Clarisse WarrenClarisse WarrenDepartment of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  •  and Samantha J. LaufSamantha J. LaufDepartment of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Summary

Recent research in political psychology and biopolitics has begun to incorporate theory and methods from cognitive neuroscience. The emerging interdisciplinary field of political neuroscience (or neuropolitics) is focused on understanding the neural mechanisms underlying political information processing and decision making. Most of the existing work in this area has utilized structural magnetic resonance imaging, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or electroencephalography, and focused on understanding areas of the brain commonly implicated in social and affective neuroscience more generally. This includes brain regions involved in affective and evaluative processing, such as the amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex, as well as regions involved in social cognition (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex [PFC]), decision making (e.g., dorsolateral PFC), and reward processing (e.g., ventral striatum). Existing research in political neuroscience has largely focused on understanding candidate evaluation, political participation, and ideological differences. Early work in the field focused simply on examining neural responses to political stimuli, whereas more recent work has begun to examine more nuanced hypotheses about how the brain engages in political cognition and decision making. While the field is still relatively new, this work has begun to improve our understanding of how people engage in motivated reasoning about political candidates and elected officials and the extent to which these processes may be automatic versus relatively more controlled. Other work has focused on understanding how brain differences are related to differences in political opinion, showing both structural and functional variation between political liberals and political conservatives. Neuroscientific methods are best used as part of a larger, multimethod research program to help inform theoretical questions about mechanisms underlying political cognition. This work can then be triangulated with experimental laboratory studies, psychophysiology, and traditional survey approaches and help to constrain and ensure that theory in political psychology and political behavior is biologically plausible given what we know about underlying neural architecture. This field will continue to grow, as interest and expertise expand and new technologies become available.

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