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More on biological influences on our political leanings

“An increasing number of studies suggest that biology can exert a significant influence on political beliefs and behaviours,” writes science reporter Lizzie Buchen.

At the height of the highly polarized political season, it is worth considering the role biology plays in our conservative or liberal tendencies.
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Last week I highlighted recent research that suggested our individual political ideology may be shaped by the child-rearing style of our parents (authoritarian vs. egalitarian) as well as by our childhood temperament.

For more on this topic, which seems especially pertinent during the current highly polarized political season, I recommend an article published last week in the journal Nature. In it, freelance science reporter Lizzie Buchen summaries what scientists have uncovered thus far about biology’s role in shaping our conservative or liberal leanings.

“An increasing number of studies suggest that biology can exert a significant influence on political beliefs and behaviours,” she writes. “Biological factors including genes, hormone levels and neurotransmitter systems may partly shape people’s attitudes on political issues such as welfare, immigration, same-sex marriage and war. And shrewd politicians might be able to take advantage of those biological levers through clever advertisements aimed at voters’ primal emotions.”

“Many of the studies linking biology to politics remain controversial and unreplicated,” she adds. “But the overall body of evidence is growing and might alter how people think about their own and others’ political attitudes.”

Genes and personality

As Buchan explains, studies involving both identical and fraternal twins have found a strong correlation between genetics and political leanings. Identical twins  (who share 100 percent of their genes) are more likely than fraternal twins (who share 50 percent of their genes, on average) to have a similar political ideology.

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But those studies aren’t definitive, because they can’t control entirely for environment. Compared with fraternal twins, identical twins have more friends in common, for example, and they maintain a closer relationship with each other as adults — factors that may also explain their similar political beliefs.

Furthermore, if genes do play a role, the number of genes involved is likely to be quite large, a factor that makes researching the genetics of politics quite difficult.

“An easier approach is to investigate the pathways that might connect genes with political behaviours and attitudes,” writes Buchen. “One connection that has been suggested is personality. US conservatives may not seem to have much in common with Iraqi or Italian conservatives, but many political psychologists agree that political ideology can be narrowed down to one basic personality trait: openness to change. Liberals tend to be more accepting of social change than conservatives. Some studies suggest that liberals tolerate more ambiguity and uncertainty, whereas conservatives are more decisive, conscientious and attracted to order.”

“Theoretically, a person who is open to change might be more likely to favour gay marriage, immigration and other policies that alter society and are traditionally linked to liberal politics in the United States,” she adds. “[P]ersonalities leaning towards order and the status quo might support a strong military force to protect a country, policies that clamp down on immigration and bans on same-sex marriage.”

But these studies are controversial, too. Buchen cites a political scientist who argues  that conservatives also welcome change, such as alterations to the current tax code and welfare system. In addition, says that researcher, the liberal bias of the people conducting the studies on personality and politics may have influenced their interpretation of the studies’ results.

Physiological reactions

Buchan’s article also discusses another intriguing approach to determining the role that biology may play in shaping our political beliefs: the study of our visceral reactions to various stimuli:

In 2008, [researchers] measured how people reacted to threatening images and sudden, loud noises. People who blinked harder and showed heightened sensitivity — as gauged by their skin conductance — were more likely to favour gun rights, capital punishment and the war in Iraq than were those who showed less sensitivity.

In another study, [researchers] showed subjects a series of emotionally charged images, including a spider on a man’s face, a maggot-infested wound, a cute rabbit and a happy child. People who described themselves as conservatives tended to respond more strongly when looking at the negative images than at the positive images, whereas liberals reacted more to the positive pictures. Conservatives also stared at the negative images longer than liberals did, which [the study’s author] connects to the idea that conservatives are more likely to confront fearful or disgusting situations, making them more disposed to support a strong military and harsh sanctions for criminals.

Such research may explain the success of political ads containing images and sounds meant to instill fear, anger, disgust and dread.

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Needed: less political ‘chutzpah’

Will this kind of research help us better understand one another’s political beliefs? Some researchers are hopeful that it will. Writes Buchan:

“People are proud of their political beliefs,” says John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We tend to think they’re the result of some rational responses to the world around us.” But in fact, a combination of genes and early experiences may predispose people to perceive and respond to political issues in certain ways. Recognizing that could help the public and politicians to develop more respect for those with opposing viewpoints.

“I’d like to see people have a little less chutzpah about their political beliefs, and understand that some people experience the world differently,” says Hibbing.

Unlike most Nature articles, Buchan’s is available free and in full on the journal’s website. It’s a fascinating read. Especially this election week.