Toward a neuropsychology of political orientation: Exploring ideology in patients with frontal and midbrain lesions

H. Hannah Nam, John T. Jost, Michael R. Meager, Jay J. Van Bavel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do people form their political beliefs? In an effort to address this question, we adopt a neuropsychological approach. In a natural experiment, we explored links between neuroanatomy and ideological preferences in two samples of brain lesion patients in New York City. Specifically, we compared the political orientations of patients with frontal lobe lesions, patients with amygdala lesions and healthy control subjects. Lesion type classification analyses revealed that people with frontal lesions held more conservative (or less liberal) beliefs than those with anterior temporal lobe lesions or no lesions. Additional analyses predicting ideology by extent of damage provided convergent evidence that greater damage in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - but not the amygdala - was associated with greater conservatism. These findings were robust to model specifications that adjusted for demographic, mood, and affect-related variables. Although measures of executive function failed to mediate the relationship between frontal lesions and ideology, our findings suggest that the prefrontal cortex may play a role in promoting the development of liberal ideology. Our approach suggests useful directions for future work to address the issue of whether biological developments precede political attitudes or vice versa - or both. This article is part of the theme issue 'The political brain: neurocognitive and computational mechanisms'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2020.0137
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1822
StatePublished - Apr 12 2021


  • amygdala
  • brain lesions
  • dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
  • neuropsychology
  • neuroscience
  • political ideology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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