Automatic processing of political preferences in the human brain

Anita Tusche*, Thorsten Kahnt, David Wisniewski, John Dylan Haynes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Individual political preferences as expressed, for instance, in votes or donations are fundamental to democratic societies. However, the relevance of deliberative processing for political preferences has been highly debated, putting automatic processes in the focus of attention. Based on this notion, the present study tested whether brain responses reflect participants' preferences for politicians and their associated political parties in the absence of explicit deliberation and attention. Participants were instructed to perform a demanding visual fixation task while their brain responses were measured using fMRI. Occasionally, task-irrelevant images of German politicians from two major competing parties were presented in the background while the distraction task was continued. Subsequent to scanning, participants' political preferences for these politicians and their affiliated parties were obtained. Brain responses in distinct brain areas predicted automatic political preferences at the different levels of abstraction: activation in the ventral striatum was positively correlated with preference ranks for unattended politicians, whereas participants' preferences for the affiliated political parties were reflected in activity in the insula and the cingulate cortex. Using an additional donation task, we showed that the automatic preference-related processing in the brain extended to real-world behavior that involved actual financial loss to participants. Together, these findings indicate that brain responses triggered by unattended and task-irrelevant political images reflect individual political preferences at different levels of abstraction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)174-182
Number of pages9
StatePublished - May 5 2013


  • Automatic valuation
  • Donations
  • FMRI
  • Political preferences
  • Preference-based decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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