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.
Ingrid J. Haas, Clarisse Warren, and Samantha J. Lauf
Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz and Seyoung Jung
The study of biology and politics is rapidly moving from being an isolated curiosity to being an integral part of the theories that political scientists propose. The necessity of adopting this interdisciplinary research philosophy will be increasingly apparent as political scientists seek to understand the precise mechanisms by which political decisions are made. To demonstrate this potential, scholars of biopolitics have addressed common misconceptions about biopolitics research (i.e., the nature-nurture dichotomy and biological determinism) and used different methods to shed light on political decision making since the turn of the 21st century—including methods drawn from evolutionary psychology, genomics, neuroscience, psychophysiology, and endocrinology. The field has already come far in its understanding of the biology of political decision making, and several key findings have emerged in biopolitical studies of political belief systems, attitudes, and behaviors. This area of research sheds light on the proximate and ultimate causes of political cognition and elucidates some of the ways in which human biology shapes both the human universals that make politics possible and the human diversity that provides it with such dynamism. Furthermore, three emerging areas of biopolitics research that anticipate the promise of a biologically informed political science are research into gene-environment interplay, research into the political causes and consequences of variation in human microbiomes, and research that integrates chronobiology—the study of the biological rhythms that regulate many aspects of life, including sleep—into the study of political decision making.
Mathew V. Hibbing, Melissa N. Baker, and Kathryn A. Herzog
Since the early 2010s, political science has seen a rise in the use of physiological measures in order to inform theories about decision-making in politics. A commonly used physiological measure is skin conductance (electrodermal activity). Skin conductance measures the changes in levels of sweat in the eccrine glands, usually on the fingertips, in order to help inform how the body responds to stimuli. These changes result from the sympathetic nervous system (popularly known as the fight or flight system) responding to external stimuli. Due to the nature of physiological responses, skin conductance is especially useful when researchers hope to have good temporal resolution and make causal claims about a type of stimulus eliciting physiological arousal in individuals. Researchers interested in areas that involve emotion or general affect (e.g., campaign messages, political communication and advertising, information processing, and general political psychology) may be especially interested in integrating skin conductance into their methodological toolbox. Skin conductance is a particularly useful tool since its implicit and unconscious nature means that it avoids some of the pitfalls that can accompany self-report measures (e.g., social desirability bias and inability to accurately remember and report emotions). Future decision-making research will benefit from pairing traditional self-report measures with physiological measures such as skin conductance.