Political Science, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Neuroimaging Personality, Social Cognition, and Character, ed. John R. Absher & Jasmin Cloutier (Academic/Elsevier, 2016), pp. 355–370. doi 10.1016/B978-0-12-800935-2.00019-1


Copyright © 2016 Elsevier Inc. Used by permission.


The field of political science has traditionally had close ties to disciplines like economics, history, and sociology. While political science has always been somewhat interdisciplinary in nature, in recent years this interdisciplinary approach has expanded to include biology, psychology, and neuroscience. This interest in the human sciences has led to the development of new subfields within political science, including biopolitics, political psychology, and political neuroscience (also called neuropolitics). What these new subfields have in common is an interest in individual human behavior and decision-making as an approach to understanding political behavior. While political science has traditionally focused on understanding politics in the aggregate, new methods and techniques are improving our ability to understand political behavior at the individual level and consider how individual differences in information processing may give rise to political behavior that is observed at the mass level.

While political science, psychology, and neuroscience have fairly distinct intellectual histories, it makes sense to combine them. While some political scientists think about politics as a special type of human behavior, and some psychologists dismiss the study of politics as too applied, a case can be made for the idea that politics and psychology share significant overlap. From the perspective of human evolution and the development of social behavior, it seems clear that social and political behavior have been historically intertwined. 1,2 Just as the brain evolved to deal with larger and larger social groups, it became necessary to consider how those groups should be governed. From this perspective, it seems obvious to suggest that political behavior can be understood through the lens of human psychology, biology, and neuroscience.

As with any interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach, there are a number of challenges for researchers working in this area. While it has become increasingly clear that recent advances in social and cognitive neuroscience will help improve our understanding of political behavior, there are significant challenges that arise when trying to engage in this type of multilevel analysis—it is not always easy to translate what happens at the neural level into much more abstract notions about how society functions.

In this chapter, I will outline the contributions that political neuroscience has made thus far and discuss areas where political neuroscience may have the most to contribute moving forward. The chapter will focus on four important questions within political psychology and discuss the role for neuroimaging work within these areas: (1) political attitudes and evaluation, (2) social cognition and politics, (3) emotion and politics, and (4) individual differences in political behavior. Given that political neuroscience is in its infancy, the discussion of work in this area will be supplemented with relevant work from social and cognitive neuroscience, as well as social and political psychology more broadly. I think political scientists and neuroscientists can benefit from firmly grounding their ideas in social psychological theory, and social psychologists can benefit from an increasing understanding of brain function, as well as increased consideration of the role of context. After reviewing the current state of the literature in political neuroscience, I will offer some suggestions for future work.