10/15/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Can Republicans Scare Democrats Into Voting for Them

In the current election campaign, Republicans are organizing their message around a theme of fear. That is hardly surprising given scientific evidence that the brains of conservatives are more strongly reactive to threats. For that reason, the campaign strategy is more likely to resonate with their own base than it is to bring in new voters.

Scaring the Voters

According to the New York Times:

"Their message is decidedly grim: Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm.

Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic fighters appearing on campaign ads."

It is not hard to stimulate fear and paranoia given the many clear and present dangers around the globe from Ebola and ISIS to panic selling on Wall Street. Yet, the campaign message will likely have more impact on Republicans themselves than on Democrats according to neuroscience.

Conservatives Big on Fear According to Brain Research
Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety.

There is a big unknown underlying these findings. Supposing that the size of one's amygdala really does increase the likelihood of being a conservative. Is the size of the amygdala determined at birth, or does it perhaps increase with frightening childhood experiences, such as authoritarian parenting and corporal punishment?

The born versus acquired perspective on political attitudes is important to psychologists. After all, if political proclivities are fixed at birth in terms of brain anatomy, there is little hope of change. Most of us would probably like to see a world in which political attitudes were less polarized, and more changeable, but that may be a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, the neuro-scientific fact of two very different political creatures helps clarify much of the political antics of modern democracies. Most societies are divided into a party that wants change (the more liberal party) and one that is afraid of change (the conservatives).

The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place. Amusingly, this even extends to fear of dirt given that Republicans are much more likely to live in houses with mud rooms.

Fear mongering may be an effective tactic in motivating Republicans to go out and vote, at least if they believe that Republican politicians can make the world a safer place that seems quite improbable given their penchant for major foreign policy blunders like the Iraq war that ultimately gave birth to ISIS and their lack of involvement with foreign humanitarian crises such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

On the other hand, such tactics will hold less sway with Democrats who are less vulnerable to paranoid messages because their smaller amygdalas help them to see the world as safer.