Brain, from

These tests show our responses come from down deep
Hey I know I'm a Liberal even in my sleep
But now I know Conservatives prefer honor . . . stability
Liberals curiosity, fun, civility

Expecting either of us to change is unwise
It's like asking us to adjust the color of our eyes
I feel more understanding even inspired
When I think it could be that we're all . . .


(lyrics copyright 2009 by Christine Lavin, John Alford, John Hibbing, Jeff Mondak, and Gene Weingarten)

That's how folksinger Christine Lavin translated research by political scientists Jeff Mondak, John Hibbing, and John Alford.

A blog post on Songramp, an online music community, by Jeff Mondak (who is also a singer-songwriter) explains that Lavin

had read about how political ideology is partly influenced by our genes, including by genetically-influenced personality traits. Her thought was that if people could come to realize that our differences are partly biological, then that perhaps would promote dialogue, or at least understanding and tolerance of different points of view.

This novel effort to bring science to popular audiences in a compelling form is fascinating.

The song includes a five-question survey. In theory, your answers should sort you on the political continuum from Liberal to Conservative.

Despite being stereotyped (and often attacked) for my political views (which I think of as progressive), I registered a tie: I couldn't answer question #1, and I split evenly on the rest. (Hey, I think leaving my house neat and tidy tells that I'm obsessive! In the song-survey it counts as a conservative trait.)

The actual research, of course, is somewhat more complex than the song can convey. A beginning analytic move will probably influence whether you think the research actually describes the psychology of political liberals and conservatives or not. As a report on a conference at UC Davis in 2008 explained, Hibbing explored whether

genes prime people to respond cautiously - conservatively - or openly - liberally - to political issues.

For me, that framing of what it means to be politically conservative or liberal makes it harder to relate the results to political affiliation. The logic used was spelled out very clearly:

conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threats from outside groups and will opt for greater punishment for those who deviate from the "in" group, which is reflected in their support of a strong military and capital punishment....

liberals are not as sensitive to threats from the outside and are more open to deviation within the "in" group — as a result, they are more tolerant of homosexuals and less inclined to back capital punishment.

So we are already one inferential step away from what the labels liberal and conservative mean in general, with definitions (and thus tests) for something like the value placed on uniformity and/or the degree to which you will approve of or resort to aggression to defend your position.

I cannot quite see how to map this distinction onto the political distinction I pay most attention to: whether you are in favor of a collective approach to society or believe that government should do as little as possible; value community or individuality.

Hibbing actually took pains to clarify that the research doesn't mean that attitudes are, as Lavin's catchy song puts it, 'hard-wired'. Instead, he takes a complex view of biological variation and how it interacts with social life, pointing out that

a gene alone does not force one to take a specific stand on an issue - like either supporting or condemning the death penalty. Rather, a gene influences how one might broadly see those issues. For example, an absolutist - a person who has a strong perception of right and wrong - might be more inclined to favor the death penalty whereas a contextualist - one who sees more nuance in life - might be less so....

"Genetics is not deterministic, but rather probabilistic," said Hibbing... He readily acknowledges that individual variation does exist and that the environment does influence how genes are expressed.

John Alford, whose studies of twins are the main basis for inferring a genetic grounding for political leanings, says similar things in other interviews.

It's instructive that the way this complexity gets boiled down in the song is to urge listeners to accept that maybe political attitudes are as innate and presumably unchangeable as eye color.

This echoes the popular reliance on biology as the most powerful explanatory framework for human behavior. Saying something is in our genes offers a simple way to understand often complex and contradictory human action. We can assert that what biology would lead us to do is natural, even if we agree that some people, some times, act differently.

While I love Christine Lavin's humor, and her unusual ability to take complex information and put it in the form of catchy and infective lyrics, it's this simplification that bothers me.

What would it mean if the point really were that our political leanings were as innate as eye color? People would be immune to changing their opinions on policy issues. That's what the song explicitly says: "expecting either of us to change is unwise".

But that is clearly untrue; the old joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged (or Tom Wolfe's version, a liberal is a conservative who has just been arrested) reflects the anecdotal reality that political views change over individual lives due to experience.

And it isn't just a matter of anecdote: in political science, the study of "public deliberation"-- political forums within which people consider and debate evidence-based arguments and reach decisions about them-- has shown that individuals can and do shift their opinions. A review of the field in 2004 noted that

a central tenet of all deliberative theory is that deliberation can change minds and transform opinions.

We even know how to make this happen. The authors cite research reviewed by Tali Mendelberg showing that "face-to-face communication is the single greatest factor in increasing the likelihood of cooperation".

Getting people to discuss their differences actually allows them to change their minds. In the kind of small-group deliberation considered in these studies, people who want to think about things have critical roles to play:

individuals who score high on the 'need for cognition'... 'the motivation to think in depth about the essential merits of a message' --are more likely to participate in deliberative discussions and to generate valid arguments.

The review also discusses experimental research by political scientist James Fishkin and colleagues on what they call the "deliberative poll". Experiments in getting people with different views together face-to-face, providing them with information about issues, and establishing ground rules for respectful discussion lead to "interpretable individual and collective opinion change on the policy issues discussed" and promote a "sense of connectedness to fellow citizens, [and] respect for views different from their own".

This is a very different conclusion than that our political views are as unchanging as our eye color.

And for all my love of folksongs and the folk community, it is a conclusion I find much more promising for our survival.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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