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Who Can Deviate from the Party Line? Political Ideology Moderates Evaluation of Incongruent Policy Positions in Insula and Anterior Cingulate Cortex

I could never toe the party line. I’d wear out the carpet crossing the floor.

– Hazel McCallion, former mayor of Mississauga, Ontario.

Abstract

Political polarization at the elite level is a major concern in many contemporary democracies, which is argued to alienate large swaths of the electorate and prevent meaningful social change from occurring, yet little is known about how individuals respond to political candidates who deviate from the party line and express policy positions incongruent with their party affiliations. This experiment examines the neural underpinnings of such evaluations using functional MRI (fMRI). During fMRI, participants completed an experimental task where they evaluated policy positions attributed to hypothetical political candidates. Each block of trials focused on one candidate (Democrat or Republican), but all participants saw two candidates from each party in a randomized order. On each trial, participants received information about whether the candidate supported or opposed a specific policy issue. These issue positions varied in terms of congruence between issue position and candidate party affiliation. We modeled neural activity as a function of incongruence and whether participants were viewing ingroup or outgroup party candidates. Results suggest that neural activity in brain regions previously implicated in both evaluative processing and work on ideological differences (insula and anterior cingulate cortex) differed as a function of the interaction between incongruence, candidate type (ingroup versus outgroup), and political ideology. More liberal participants showed greater activation to incongruent versus congruent trials in insula and ACC, primarily when viewing ingroup candidates. Implications for the study of democratic representation and linkages between citizens’ calls for social change and policy implementation are discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We also varied task uncertainty but that is beyond the scope of the present manuscript and will not be discussed here.

  2. 2.

    The candidates themselves were not the primary focus of this experiment, so this choice was made to minimize potential variability in candidate evaluation as a function of gender or race. Six candidate images were chosen from the Chicago Face Database (Ma, Correll, & Wittenbrink, 2015), based on gender, race, and perceived age. Four images were randomly selected for each participant and shown in randomized order.

  3. 3.

    Participants also completed a number of individual difference measures after scanning, but these are beyond the scope of the current manuscript and will not be discussed in more detail here.

  4. 4.

    No option for “moderate” was offered in order to ensure we could discriminate between candidates that would be most likely seen as “ingroup” and “outgroup” candidates. Further, partisan “leaners” and even Independents have been shown to largely manifest the same-party-based evaluations as partisan identifiers and tend to show meaningful implicit preferences (Hawkins & Nosek, 2012; Iyengar & Westwood, 2015; Keith et al., 1986; Lundberg & Payne, 2014).

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Acknowledgements

The Political Attitudes and Cognition Lab and MRI Users Group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provided useful feedback on this work, as did guest editor Hannah Nam and two anonymous reviewers. Additional thanks to undergraduate research assistants Allison Haindfield, Grace Stallworth, and Sarah Sweeney and MRI Technologist Joanne Murray for assistance with data collection.

Funding

This work was supported by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office for Research and Economic Development, Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior, College of Arts and Sciences, and Department of Political Science.

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Correspondence to Ingrid Johnsen Haas.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Appendix

Appendix

Policy Statements

Democratic Statements

Banning the death penalty
Requiring guns be locked in a safe
Government insurance covering all medical costs
Legalization of medical marijuana
Teaching evolution
A path to US citizenship for illegal immigrants
Legalizing same-sex marriage
Sex education in schools
Requiring body cameras on police officers
Harsher punishment for police use of excessive force
Allowing cyclists to use public streets
Same-sex civil unions
Waiting periods for gun purchase
Government regulation of business
Mandatory recycling
Expanding Medicaid
Federal government action to reduce unemployment
Automatic citizenship for immigrants
Restricting the death penalty
A ban on semiautomatic weapons
Maintaining the legal right to abortion
Raising the federal minimum wage
Federal government action on global warming
Diplomatic solution with ISIS in Iraq
Government benefits for low-income families
Economic incentives for businesses reducing pollution
Requiring background checks to buy guns
Requiring United Nations approval for US military action
USA aid to Africa to help fight Ebola
Increased racial diversity in police departments
Decreasing defense spending
Granting amnesty to some immigrants
Lighter prison sentences for victimless crimes
A ban on religious symbols in schools
The right to have an abortion
Physician-assisted suicide
Legalizing marijuana
Universal health care
Limitations on gun ownership
Government regulation of pollution
Allowing gay people to adopt
Legalizing prostitution
Higher taxes for the top 1%
Withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan
Government funding for stem-cell research
A ban on school prayer
Euthanasia for terminally ill patients
Decreasing the size of the army

Republican Statements

Sending troops to fight ISIS
Invading Iran
A ban on travel from West Africa to prevent spreading Ebola
Punishing women who drink or use drugs during pregnancy
The war on drugs
Fracking (injecting liquid into rocks to extract oil and gas)
The use of military attack drones
Decreasing government services
The death penalty
Capital punishment
The right of citizens to own guns
Allowing illegal immigrants to work only low paying jobs
Mandatory military service in the USA
Outlawing abortion
Eliminating Medicare
Allowing abortion only in cases of rape or incest
Allowing high school students to have guns
A ban on gay couples from adopting children
Requiring parental consent for teen abortions
Racial profiling under some circumstances
Loosening restrictions on gun ownership
Sending illegal immigrants to work camps
Privatization of health insurance
Racial profiling of African Americans
School prayer
A ban on sex and violence from television
Protecting all gun ownership
Posting the 10 Commandments in every classroom
Privatization of social security
Decreased regulation of business
Government access to private email to fight terrorism
Deportation of unaccompanied minors
Laws requiring voter identification
Restrictions on immigration
A ban on affirmative action
A ban on same-sex marriage
Time limits on welfare benefits
Killing anyone who joins ISIS
Intervening in the Israel–Palestine conflict
Dismantling the welfare program
Deportation of all illegal immigrants
Expanding the use of the death penalty
Increasing defense spending
A ban on environmental regulations
Establishing English as the official language
Legalizing carrying concealed weapons
Suspending civil liberties to fight terrorism
Abstinence-only sex education

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Haas, I.J., Baker, M.N. & Gonzalez, F.J. Who Can Deviate from the Party Line? Political Ideology Moderates Evaluation of Incongruent Policy Positions in Insula and Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Soc Just Res 30, 355–380 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-017-0295-0

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Keywords

  • Political ideology
  • Candidate evaluation
  • Policy attitudes
  • Incongruence
  • fMRI
  • Anterior cingulate cortex
  • Insular cortex