Donkeys and Elephants and Brains

Donkeys and Elephants and Brains

The height of the political hunting season is approaching, and like many Americans, it’s been on my mind. But not in the way you might think – not the evaluation of candidates or the examination of policy positions. Instead, it’s the growing body of science that identifies neurological differences between conservatives and liberals that’s grabbed my attention.

Why is this important to us as sustainability marketing professionals? We’re not running a campaign – or are we? The metaphor here is obvious: we ask people to believe in our message and vote with their wallets.

Here’s the other relevant consideration: in Shelton Group’s consumer segmentation system, one of the most clear-cut indicators of green attitudes and behaviors is political affiliation. Consistently, we see that those with greener lifestyles tend to be more politically liberal or independent, and those who are skeptical about climate change and environmental responsibility tend to identify as conservatives.

Much has been documented and written about the differences between those on the left and those on the right, including:

  • Personality traits
  • Moral foundations
  • Core values
  • Neural structures
  • Response to unexpected stimuli
  • Sensitivity to threat
  • Physiological response to threat
  • Sensitivity to disgust
  • And possibly even genetics

And now there’s a new finding from researchers at the University College of London – a true physical difference in the brain: Conservatives have a bigger emotional response center, while liberals have more gray matter to suppress emotional reactions. Those leaning right have larger amygdalas, the area of the brain that stores emotional memories and is a center for learning emotional responses, or conditioning. The amygdala is split in two – and ironically, right-wingers have a larger right amygdala, which controls emotional suppression. Think about it this way: The bigger your amygdala, the more likely you are to have emotional responses, and process information through an emotional filter. Therefore, emotional messages work well with this group, since they have loads of empathy for those in their in-groups. Fear-based messaging appeals to preserving the status quo, rewarding the establishment and protecting ideals resonate with these brains. And this is one of the reasons, say some neuroscientists, that conservatives tend to reject science and embrace faith instead.

Liberals, on the other hand, have more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex, which is responsible for detecting and judging conflict, weighing competing options, emotional regulation and keeping one’s emotions in check while relying more on facts and logic. It’s the area that figures out which patterns of information make sense or are worth investigating more. According to the studies, those who lean left are more likely to be influenced by data-driven messaging, scientific evidence and logical arguments. Think about it this way: When you’re faced with an important decision, you try to keep emotion out of your internal conversation – you try to look at the facts and not just go on your gut.

This isn’t a judgment about which party is right or wrong – it’s just plain biology. And it’s not an endorsement of a particular ideology – it’s what shows up on MRI scans. But it does have some implications for us as marketers in this new golden age of understanding the human brain.

We know from our Green Living Pulse study that messages that emphasize costs/loss/risk and those that emphasize the benefits are equally effective in green marketing. But if you believe the science, you should emphasize the potential costs, losses and risks for conservatives and use highly personal, emotional messaging. For liberals, communicate the latest scientific findings, talk about the need for change and acknowledge the complexities around the whole environmental issue, and you may just light up their brains.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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