The race to become the most powerful politician on earth is well
under way, and the US is gripped by election fever. In newsrooms and
bars across the land, liberals and conservatives are slugging it out,
trying to convince each other that their way of thinking is right. They
may be wasting their breath.
to an emerging idea, political positions are substantially determined
by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. "These views are
deep-seated and built into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not
to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown
eyes. We have to rethink persuasion," says John Alford, a political
scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
to support this idea is growing. For example, twin studies suggest that
opinions on a long list of issues, from religion in schools to nuclear
power and gay rights, have a substantial genetic component. The
decision to vote rather than stay at home on election day may also be
linked to genes. Neuroscientists have also got in on the act, showing
that liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain
idea that our politics are in part shaped by our genes is not itself
new, but it has only recently come to the attention of political
scientists. In 2005, Alford published a paper in which he analysed two
decades of work in behavioural genetics, including a huge database
containing the political opinions of 30,000 twins from Virginia (American Political Science Review, vol 99, p 153).
He found that identical twins were more likely than non-identical twins
to give the same answers to political questions. For example, on the
issue of whether property should be taxed, four-fifths of identical
twins gave the same answer, compared to two-thirds of non-identical
could account for this? Well, given that identicals have the same genes
while non-identicals share only half their genes, the fact that
identical twins gave the same answer more often than non-identicals
suggests the answer must be influenced by their genes.
results are startling. Evolution is a slow process that takes centuries
to effect changes, so why would it endow us with genes that affect
issues which seem fleeting on an evolutionary scale? Frank Sulloway, a
psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, backs the idea
that inheritance can influence political attitudes, but admits the
results may sound odd. "There's no such thing as a gene for disliking
hippies," he says. The point is that certain genes shape personality
traits, and these are linked to political opinion.
2003, John Jost, a psychologist at New York University, and colleagues
surveyed 88 studies, involving more than 20,000 people in 12 countries,
that looked for a correlation between personality traits and political
orientation (American Psychologist, vol 61, p 651).
Some traits are obviously going to be linked to politics, such as
xenophobia being connected with the far right. However, Jost uncovered
many more intriguing connections. People who scored highly on a scale
measuring fear of death, for example, were almost four times more
likely to hold conservative views. Dogmatic types were also more
conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences
tended to be liberals. Jost's review also noted research showing that
conservatives prefer simple and unambiguous paintings, poems and songs.
noticed a pattern emerging from these results that fits neatly into
existing models of personality. Many psychologists believe personality
can be categorised into five classes, relating to conscientiousness,
openness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The latter two
seem to have little to do with political orientation. Scores on the
conscientiousness scale, however, show a significant correlation with
position within the political spectrum (see Diagram).
much stronger link exists between political orientation and openness,
which psychologists define as including traits such as an ability to
accept new ideas, a tolerance for ambiguity and an interest in
different cultures. When these traits are combined, people with high
openness scores turn out to be almost twice as likely to be liberals.
the genetic influences on personality with the political tendencies of
different personality types, and the idea that genetics shapes
political tendencies seems very plausible indeed. All of the big five
personality traits are highly heritable (Journal of Research in Personality, vol 32, p 431),
with several studies suggesting that around half of the variation in
openness scores is a result of genetic differences. Some traits that
are linked to openness, such as being sociable, are also known to be
influenced by the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. And levels
of these chemicals are controlled in part by genes. So while there
isn't a gene for liking hippies, there is probably a set of genes that
influences openness, which in turn may influence political orientation.
join the dots in the argument, researchers next need to identify the
brain areas and genes that shape political thinking. No one has yet
identified a gene that correlates with liberalism or conservatism, for
instance, but James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of
California, San Diego, thinks the decision to vote rather than stay at
home on election day may be linked to individual genes.
act of voting inevitably has an emotional dimension. Voters generally
have a certain degree of trust in their chosen candidate, for example.
That suggests that two well-studied genes may be involved: 5HTT and MAOA,
which both help control the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter
that also influences brain areas linked with trust and social
interaction. People with versions of the genes that are better at
regulating serotonin tend to be more sociable. According to Fowler's
hypothesis, they should also be more likely to vote.
In a study currently under review at The Journal of Politics,
Fowler confirms that his hunch was correct. Using data on 2500 adults
from across the US, he shows that people whose version of the MAOA
gene is efficient at regulating the brain chemical are 1.3 times more
likely to vote than those with a version that is less efficient. By
itself, 5HTT did not show such an effect. But Fowler found that
this gene interacted with the environment in an intriguing way. Members
of religious groups are known to be more likely to vote and, among this
subset of subjects, those with a particular version of 5HTT were 60 per cent more likely to vote.
Many other genes are likely to be involved. In a paper presented in April 2007
to the annual conference of the Midwest Political Science Association,
held in Chicago, Ira Carmen, of the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, discussed D4DR, a gene involved in regulating
levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Itis known that high levels of
dopamine can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder. Carmen speculates
that dopamine might therefore be linked to the need to impose order on
the world. If so, variants of the D4DR gene that lead to higher
levels of dopamine should be found more frequently in conservatives.
Carmen plans to apply for a grant to study this and other issues in
around 200 or so individuals.
gene studies are not the only way in which researchers are trying to
pin politics down to more fundamental science. If Jost's personality
work is correct, the differences between conservatives and liberals
should show up in measures of brain activity. Tasks that involve
dealing with conflicting information, for example, are known to
activate an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex
(ACC). Since liberals are generally more open to conflicting ideas,
activity in this area of the brain would be expected to differ between
them and conservatives.
September, David Amodio, a neuroscientist at New York University,
showed that it does. He asked around 40 people to complete a simple
test, in which they had to press a button as soon as a certain letter
flashed up on a computer screen (Nature Neuroscience, vol 10, p 1246).
The letter appeared in most rounds of the test and subjects soon
learned to respond fast. In one out of five cases, however, a different
letter appeared. Participants were not supposed to press the button
but, having grown used to seeing the "right" letter, many did so
accidentally. The ability to hold back and resist the habit of pressing
the button is used as an analogy for dealing with conflicting sources
of information, and to measure individuals' capacity to manage them.
he predicted, Amodio found a correlation between the strength of
liberal attitudes and scores on the test. More importantly, he was able
to link that difference to brain activity. Electrodes placed on
subjects' skulls revealed that liberals had greater ACC activity when
they had to hold back from pressing the button. Liberals also had
higher activity immediately after making a mistake, and the greater the
activity, the better their performance over many rounds. The results,
says Amodio, suggest that basic brain mechanisms, such as those that
control habit formation, may distinguish liberal minds from
But some studies linking biology to political attitudes need to be taken with a pinch of salt. One recent brain-scan study, published in The New York Times as an opinion piece, was pilloried in the press
for being marketing, not science. The study was criticised in part
because the researchers involved had links to FKF Applied Research, a
firm which employs brain scanning in its market research work. And
there is no shortage of critics who question the whole idea of linking
politics with biology. Personality studies in particular have been
singled out as sloppy science, in part because qualitative traits like
openness cannot be measured in the way that height or eye colour can.
To gauge personality, psychologists generate a series of questions
designed to measure the trait of interest. Asking a subject whether
they "jump into things without thinking" is one way to measure
openness. But some of the questions on the tests assess issues that are
political in nature, such as a subject's views about foreigners. If
this is the case, "the correlation is completely circular", says Evan
Charney, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North
has a more general criticism of the personality work. As others have
pointed out, a rather unflattering view of conservatives emerges from
the studies. They are portrayed as dogmatic, routine-loving
individuals, while liberals come across as free-spirited and
open-minded folk. "I keep expecting Jost to show that conservatism is
negatively correlated with penis size," jokes Charney. He feels that
inherent biases in the make-up of academia, which is dominated by
liberals, leads to the "pathologising of conservatism".
last criticism is difficult to dismiss. "It's hard to come up with
totally unbiased language," admits Sulloway. However, the details of
the language are not critical to the overall result. When political
questions are weeded out, the results remain the same, he says. And
Jost points out that conservative academics have run personality
studies and come up with similar results to their liberal colleagues.
"We are all pretty much finding the same kinds of differences," he says.
if the personality differences between people who hold varying
political views turn out to be real, others are sceptical we will ever
understand the genetics that underlie them. Lindon Eaves, a behavioural
geneticist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, helped
assemble much of the data that Alford reviewed in 2004. He says that
complex traits such as openness are likely to be determined by the
combined action of a large number of genes. It is not impossible to
identify them, but previous experience suggests it will be tough. Eaves
points out that studies of twins have shown schizophrenia to have a
substantial inherited component, but the jury is still out on whether
we will find the individual genes involved.
may soon find out whether Carmen and others will prove Eaves wrong.
Next March, Carmen is inviting over 50 geneticists, politics
researchers and neuroscientists to a conference at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to discuss such ideas, in the hope of
giving birth to a whole new field of study.
without a detailed understanding of the genes involved, these studies
could influence real-world politics. At worst, the research could be
interpreted in a depressing way. Jost and others speculate that all
societies contain groups analogous to western liberals and
conservatives: one wants to bring in new ideas, the other resists
change. In different times and areas of the world, the party names
differ, as do the topics of contention. Yet politics will always be
characterised by two groups pulling in different directions. If the
genetic basis means these groups are hard-wired to disagree, it makes
debate and policy analyses seem a little pointless.
involved in day-to-day politics do not see it that way. In part, that
may be because the studies have attracted little attention outside
academia. Of the researchers that New Scientist spoke to, none
said that professional politicians had expressed an interest in their
work. Some political think tanks know about the results, but view them
with suspicion. At the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-free-market
group, scholar David Frum says that he is "flattered by the evidence
that conservatives are more honest and dutiful than liberals". But
given the huge number of variables that affect the outcome of an
election, it would be a foolhardy researcher who would draw
generalisations from Jost's work, he says.
involved in the research add that even if we do find genes that have a
powerful influence on politics, it will still be worth having political
debates. Alford says his work shows that our reaction to homosexuality,
like homosexuality itself, is in part determined by our genes. But over
time, he adds, policy still changes. Arguments over gay rights in
Europe and North America now focus on issues of discrimination at work
and the right to marry. Just 50 years ago, much of the debate was about
whether homosexuality should be legal. The two sides still do not
understand each other, but protest movements, media pressure and other
factors have helped change the issues they fight over. "The fact that
people exist at poles doesn't eliminate the persuasive element of
politics," says Alford.
the guy at the bar may never agree with you, but perhaps realising that
can be liberating. "We spend a lot of energy getting upset with the
other side," says Alford. We often think our opponents are misinformed
or stubborn. Accepting that people are born with some of their views
changes that, Alford points out. Come to terms with these differences,
and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion on figuring out
ways of accommodating both points of view.
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