How Do We Choose Our Political Leaders?


Wherever you might live in the world, you know what it’s like when it’s election time. The airwaves and the billboards are taken over by the electoral candidates. Your mailbox is flooded with brochures and mailers every other day while the newspapers ignore most events other than those related to the elections and the candidates. We, of course, gobble up every piece of information that is dished out to us. After all, we need to know about the candidates before we choose a leader. But how do you think we make up our minds?

Scientists seem to have decoded what happens in our brains when we have to choose between political candidates. According to the latest study, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC) region of the brain must function fully and normally to enable us to make sound decisions based on all the pieces of information we have with us. The findings of this study are sure to whet interest in the functioning of the LOFC region. After all, understanding why we choose the way we do would interest many different quarters, from politicians to marketers.

The LOFC and decision-making

Functional neuroimaging studies of the human brain provide a clear picture of how the LOFC is involved in the decision-making process.

According to one study, the LOFC region executes a number of distinct functions that cumulatively make up the decision-making process. The LOFC helps us evaluate the affective worth of stimuli as they hit our senses and figure out the chances (if any) of garnering rewards by acting upon the stimuli. These encoding processes taking place in the brain in response to stimuli also guide us to eventually make a decision by helping us assess the values of several different courses of action. When we can evaluate the potential risks and rewards of an action plan, it helps us choose a specific course.

Further studies have corroborated the findings from earlier experiments on the role of the LOFC in the decision-making process. According to them, the damage to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) region of the brain may impede the decision-making process in several ways. This can render the individual incapable of making complex decisions after comparing the relative values of diverse bits of information.

The role of the LOFC in political decision-making

Making a knowledgeable decision depends greatly on our ability to weigh the pros and cons of disparate pieces of information and string them together to perceive the big picture. The role of the LOFC region in facilitating this complex executive function is evident from the findings of study carried out on subjects who were asked to evaluate the merits of several political candidates.

The subjects comprised healthy individuals, patients with damage to their LOFC regions, and patients with damaged frontal portions but healthy LOFC regions. All subjects were shown photographs of real-life electoral candidates, but they did not know anything about the candidates, so they could guess the competence and attractiveness of the candidates only from the photographs. Healthy subjects made their voting decisions based on perceived competence and attractiveness. Those subjects who had damaged frontal regions but healthy LOFCs also based their voting decisions on the competence and attractiveness ratings of the candidates. But those with damaged LOFCs based their decisions only on the attractiveness ratings of the candidates.

The above experiment indicates that damage to the LOFC impairs a person’s ability to analyze information from varied sources before making a political decision. However, scientists point out that damage to this region may not affect a person’s ability to evaluate social traits based on perceived attractiveness.

The findings of the above study prove what scientists had been guessing for all these years — in the absence of details, people tend to choose political leaders based on a complex set of factors that go beyond the mere attractiveness quotient of the electoral candidates.

According to one study, after just looking at photographs, people tend to vote for unknown candidates who they think share positive characteristic traits with them. The perceived characteristic traits of the candidates that get most nods are openness and transparency, emotional stability, and likeability. This study indicates the far-reaching influence of first impressions.

Political leaders with an eye on power and position may want to take note of the findings of another study. People who have suffered damage to the OFC region of their brains tend to be morally harsher and more inflexible than healthy people. The people with damaged OFC regions tend to exhibit “hypermoral” tendencies. These people punish offenders more harshly than those with healthy OFC regions for crimes committed under similar circumstances and with identical degrees of severity. So political leaders, you know what to do; make sure that you have an impeccable public image and behave honorably in your personal life.

OFC and economic decision-making

Scientists have now decoded the neural mechanism of decision-making. They have also discovered that the OFC has a role to play even when we are in the shopping mall or the grocery store. The economic decision-making process is a complex one where the individual has to assess the relative values (read: rewards) of various goods and figure out how much money they are willing to part with to buy a specific item. So marketers are probably looking towards scientists to figure out how exactly the human brain computes future rewards and why they are willing to pay more for certain goods than others.

However, apart from the knowledge that the LOFC plays a role in complex decision-making processes, scientists are still unclear about the exact roles of the other regions of the brain in calculating the value of various action pathways and decision options. Once they do, therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists hope that they will be able to predict human behavior more accurately, especially in persons who have suffered brain damage.


Fellows LK (2007). The role of orbitofrontal cortex in decision making: a component process account. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1121, 421-30 PMID: 17846161

Koppensteiner, M., & Stephan, P. (2014). Voting for a personality: Do first impressions and self-evaluations affect voting decisions? Journal of Research in Personality, 51, 62-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.04.011

Mimura M (2010). [Role of the orbitofrontal cortex in moral judgment]. Rinsho shinkeigaku = Clinical neurology, 50 (11), 1007-9 PMID: 21921545

O’DOHERTY, J. (2007). Lights, Camembert, Action! The Role of Human Orbitofrontal Cortex in Encoding Stimuli, Rewards, and Choices Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1121 (1), 254-272 DOI: 10.1196/annals.1401.036

Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., & Rangel, A. (2007). Orbitofrontal Cortex Encodes Willingness to Pay in Everyday Economic Transactions Journal of Neuroscience, 27 (37), 9984-9988 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2131-07.2007

Xia, C., Stolle, D., Gidengil, E., & Fellows, L. (2015). Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex Links Social Impressions to Political Choices Journal of Neuroscience, 35 (22), 8507-8514 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0526-15.2015

Image via Denis Kornilov / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing.
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