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Other researchers are looking at how physiological reactions can influence how people interpret political issues. In , for example, a team led by John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, found that people who were more sensitive to threatening images and sudden, loud noises—as measured by their skin conductance—were more likely to favor gun rights, capital punishment, and the war in Iraq.

Political science and biology at a crossroad | Ars Technica

Hormones may also have a role in determining political attitudes, though early studies have been criticized for small sample sizes and reports of only weak effects. Additionally, most of these studies have been published in political science journals, where the editors and peer reviewers may be more likely to miss methodological deficiencies that make the results less than convincing. Home The Nutshell Wikimedia, Voice of America Everyone knows that social factors, such as parents and childhood environment, strongly influence political views. Related Articles. Image of the Day: Actin Assembly.

Image of the Day: Climate Strike. In , Hibbing and Alford published 3 findings nearly identical to those earlier studies — showing strong correlations between genetics and political views.

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These finally caught the attention of political scientists. It wasn't the kind of attention that Alford and Hibbing were hoping for, however. But a few researchers, mainly in the United States, were intrigued enough to follow up with further work. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, used the twin method to show 4 that voter turnout and political participation also had a genetic component.

Peter Hatemi, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, found results similar to Alford and Hibbing's using twins from Australia, Denmark, Sweden and the United States, although the work has not yet been published. The twin studies were far from definitive, in large part because such research cannot completely control for environmental factors.

Compared with fraternal twins, genetically identical twins are more likely to have the same friends and to maintain regular contact as adults. Furthermore, parents, friends and teachers often treat identical twins more equally than fraternal twins. All of that makes it hard to unpack how much genes and environment each contribute to the shared political attitudes of identical twins.

A few attempts have been made to tease apart the various influences. In one study 5 , Hatemi found that identical twins who do not spend much time together are still more concordant than are fraternal twins who do, suggesting that genetic factors do matter. But the twin studies continue to face strong opposition. Twin studies also offer no insight into how the genome can nudge people to lean left or right on various political issues. For that, researchers have started exploring candidate genes.

Introduction

Genes involved with the olfactory system and the neurotransmitters glutamate, dopamine and serotonin have all been linked to behaviours such as voter turnout 6 and ideology 7 , although these findings have come under scrutiny and are yet to be independently replicated. Part of the problem, says Freese, is that studies linking specific genes to political behaviours have usually been published in political-science journals, rather than scientific journals, so editors and reviewers may not have picked up on some deficiencies in the studies. Christopher Dawes, a political scientist at New York University, acknowledges complications in some of his own studies of specific genes and says that more illuminating results might come from molecular techniques such as genome-wide association studies, which scan the genomes of large numbers of people, looking for sequences linked to a behaviour or trait.

But researchers in this area are only just beginning to use such resource-intensive strategies. If other complex behaviours and traits are any indication, the answer is not going to be simple. Even for traits known to have a very large genetic component, such as height, the evidence points to the influence of thousands of genes, each applying a feather-light force. So it seems unlikely that a small number of genes can push someone towards being a liberal activist, a social conservative or a libertarian. Many researchers have come to the conclusion that it is premature to focus on the genetics of politics.

An easier approach is to investigate the pathways that might connect genes with political behaviours and attitudes. 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 8 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; personalities 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 some researchers baulk at such simple links between personality and ideology. Evan Charney, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, points out that conservatives sometimes embrace change, such as proposals in the United States to alter the tax code and welfare system. He also says that he and most people in his field are liberals — an imbalance that could bias how they interpret connections between personality and politics.

Some researchers have sought to move beyond personality studies to evaluate how participants' physiological reactions can influence how they interpret and respond to political issues.


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In , Alford, Hibbing, Hatemi and others measured how people reacted to threatening images and sudden, loud noises 9. 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 10 , Hibbing 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 Hibbing 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.

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Some researchers are exploring whether hormone systems play a part in political attitudes. A few studies, for example, have looked at connections between people's prejudices and their levels of oxytocin — the feel-good hormone linked to empathy and bonding with loved ones. In one experiment 11 , Dutch participants who had taken puffs of oxytocin responded more favourably to Dutch people than to foreigners, suggesting a bias towards their own group.

Hatemi and Rose McDermott, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, are currently investigating whether other hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol, have any connections with ideology.


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  4. Many of the hormone studies done so far have come under attack, because they often rely on small samples and the reported effects are sometimes weak. Either way, he says, it is difficult to change someone's mind about political issues because their reactions are rooted in their physiology. So people on the right are unlikely to be reached by arguments that seem rational to the left, or vice versa. But tapping into emotions might prove more successful. After the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September , New Yorkers who had been directly exposed to the trauma of the events experienced a 'conservative shift', expressing views that were more patriotic, more supportive of the military and more religious than they had before Disgust, too, can shift attitudes.

    One study 13 suggested that people exhibit more conservative views when reminded of impurity — for example, by the proximity of a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign reminding them to clean their hands or a foul smell. Does that mean that negative political adverts, designed to invoke fear and disgust, could actually change people's views? Alford says that these commercials are targeted more at mobilizing favourable voters — and demobilizing the opposition. Regardless of whether biology shapes political choice, it may affect a person's likelihood of voting in the first place.

    In an as-yet unpublished study, Hibbing has found that people with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are much less likely to vote than are demographically similar people who have lower cortisol levels. Hibbing is currently working to find a way to ease voting for these 'stressed' people, perhaps through options such as postal voting.

    Alford says that the biggest impact of all this research may be to make political discourse more civil and accepting of differences. Martin, N.