Are Political Views Hard-Wired in the Brain?

The Doctor Weighs In
7 min readDec 14, 2017

By Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

There is still a big gap in our knowledge between fixation of memories in the brain and fixed political views, but we know when experiences are embedded in long-term memory, thick protein bridges between the neurons “solidify” the circuits.

Yesterday, I had a three-hour lunch with B, a long-lost friend. We reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little (metaphorically speaking), gossiped, and, of course, discussed politics. B tells me that the political views of his family in Texas are diametrically opposed to his. Now, B doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He is, after all, the former dean of a famous business school. Ever the educator, it’s no surprise that he tried to “educate” his relatives — or, more accurately, attempted to change their minds. As he recounted his experience, I was thinking: fool’s errand. Here’s why.

Think you made up your own mind? Think again

You may have noticed that the term “tribalism” has recently become the lingua franca of political gurus and talking heads on cable TV. What they mean when they use the term is that loyalty to the tribe, be it a literal tribe (for instance, the desert Bedouins in the Middle East), the home team, or your political party), trumps (pardon the language) all other considerations of fairness, ethics, justice, and even self-interest.

Political scientists tell us that people vote according to their cultural beliefs. Well, that is just tribalism wrapped in the guise of a common belief in something, be it “traditional values”, abhorrence of abortion, or social justice.

Well-known behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us that our opinions are the result of lifelong memories, impressions, and experiences which are deeply rooted in what they have dubbed as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is a fast, intuitive, and not always rational network residing mostly in the deep, ancient parts of the brain. System 2 is analytical, it is used to weigh evidence, argue with itself about pros and cons, and arrive at conclusions even though, sometimes, it may be too late. System 1 is fast and effortless; System 2 is slow and ponderous.

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