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Brain scans can predict political ideologies, says new OSU study

Seo-Eun Yang conducted an Ohio State University study showing how brain scans could predict political ideology
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Seo-Eun Yang conducted an Ohio State University study showing how brain scans could predict political ideology

Researchers often look at factors like education or income level, family ties and more to get a sense of what your political ideology might be. But a new Ohio State University study shows brain scans are a more accurate predictor of a person's political ideologies.

When OSU doctoral candidate Seo-Eun Yang looked at MRI’s of her subject’s brains, she found scans could accurately determine political ideology most of the time.

“When we only use those demographic variables, the accuracy rate is around like 65 or 70%. But after we add the brain scan images and brain scan information, we can accurately predict someone’s political affiliation around 80%,” Yang said.

Yang said this study showed activations of specific regions of the brain were most strongly associated with political affiliation. When 174 adults performed standard tasks in an MRI machine, different partisan responses were triggered.

Brain scans of people taken while they performed various tasks — and even doing nothing — accurately predicted whether they were politically conservative or liberal, according to the largest study of its kind.

Three tasks stood out with particularly strong links. One was an empathy task. In that one, subjects were shown photos of emotional people with neutral, happy, sad, and fearful faces. The second task looked at episodic memory and the third was a task where participants could win or lose money based on how quickly they pushed a button.

Only the scans of the reward task could predict political extremism — those who said they were very conservative or very liberal. And only the empathy task (emotional faces) was significantly associated with moderate ideology.

The study, published recently in the journal PNAS Nexus, is the largest to date to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain to study political ideology. And Yang said it breaks new ground.

"This is really a good breakthrough because no literature so far actually predicts political ideology purely based on the biological marks so our research can contribute some kind of scientific advancement," Yang said.

Yang did the work as a doctoral student at OSU but she is now an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Contact Jo Ingles at
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