Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper PhD


All Politics Is Genetic?

New evidence suggests political opinions are influenced by our genetics.

Posted Apr 24, 2012

This is the second of three posts reflecting on the rise of genetic, evolutionary, and biological approaches to the study of politics. Today’s post considers some of the most highly publicized and otherwise most promising research to identify genetic and/or biological foundations for political opinions and behavior. 

When University of Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in December, 2008, political scientists everywhere seemed elated. Not necessarily because of the content of Hibbing’s research, but because political scientists seemed to finally be getting some popular attention for their research.

The Daily Show had not picked up on Hibbing’s earlier work, which made a huge splash in academic circles in which he and coauthors John Alford (Rice) and Carolyn Funk (VCU) used twin data, comparing identical to fraternal twins, to show that political opinions and ideology were deeply shaped by inheritance. Instead, segment focused on a much smaller study published in the prestigious journal Science. In this later article, Hibbing and a number of collaborators showed that the intensity with which people physiologically respond to threatening stimuli predicted their opinions on a number of political issues. So the argument goes that all politics is genetic to the extent that politics provokes our most basic physical and psychological systems.

But the kind of research Hibbing is conducting at the University of Nebraska Political Physiology Lab (and that is increasingly common elsewhere, such as the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics) falls outside the norm of political science research. Genetic, physiological, and evolutionary approaches to understanding politics were—and still are—new and not fully accepted as credible. Indeed, scientific skepticism of genetic and physiological political research is as intense as the enthusiasm for these theories and techniques (something I will touch on in tomorrow’s post).

That said, the National Science Foundation recently convened the Genes, Cognition, and Social Behavior Working Group, whose 2011 report concluded that:

there exist exciting opportunities to support transformative biologically-informed social science research. While this conclusion has a positive-valence, it makes no attempt to sugar-coat the challenges. There are multiple inferential, intellectual, and cultural challenges inherent in such pursuits. Chief amongst these challenges is an appetite amongst some in the media and the public for dramatic claims about genetic determinants of particular behaviors. This appetite can skew researcher incentives away from credible research agendas and fuel public misunderstanding of genetics, cognition, and science in general.

They conclude that genetics and biological approaches to social science research merit funding. (You can read the group’s full 160-page report here.)

Biopolitics research has steered attention toward the genetic markers that predispose people to politically relevant psychological traits like aggression and empathy or measurement of genes, hormones, and physiological reactions to stimuli.

Thus, the evidence that there are genetic bases of political opinions is largely indirect. For example, another highly publicized study (gated, ungated) found that states that states voting for winning political parties across three election cycles (2004-2008) searched for internet pornography more than states that voted for losing parties. This evidence thus seems to suggest that our genetically evolved responses to conflict manifest in political contexts. The data provide aggregate evidence consistent with an earlier (and smaller) study that found males voting for losing the losing candidate in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election (i.e., McCain) had suppressed post-election testosterone compared to both pre-election levels and those of Obama voters. The authors of the latter study elsewhere report that elections also increased the stress hormone cortisol among McCain voters. All these findings suggest that our responses to politics are manifestations of more general physiological and psychological systems (which are, to at least some extent, shaped by our genetics).

A few studies have shown direct relationships between genes and political opinions or behavior. For example, Rose McDermott and colleagues found that the Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene predicts whether males respond aggressively to behavioral provocation (like those that occur when country leaders face military aggression by other states). James Fowler and Christopher Dawes (UC-San Diego) report two studies that find, respectively, a link between MAOA and voting behavior (gated, ungated) and between a dopamine receptor gene and voting behavior (gated, ungated). The latter paper also suggests that the same dopamine receptor gene is correlated with partisanship (that is, being partisan rather than politically independent).

Many of these papers are “old” in scientific time, having been published toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century. But genetically and evolutionarily influenced research continues. Last week at the annual national meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, “biopolitics” was, again, a hot topic. One of the more exciting papers, not yet available online, was authored by Michael Bang Petersen (Aarhus University, Denmark) and colleagues; the paper, “Why We Support the Welfare State before Lunch: Resource Depletion and the Activation of Evolved Sharing Strategies,” borrowed from evolutionary psychology to argue that our own feelings of hunger affect our willingness to support social welfare policy—data suggest that experiencing hunger leads us to be more supportive.

Another paper, by McDermott and Peter Hatemi (a frequent Hibbing collaborator), presented “Do You See What I See? Not If You are a Liberal and I am a Conservative.” The paper (again, not online), used eye-tracking to show that liberals and conservatives paid attention to different parts of political imagery presented on a computer screen. Liberals were far more likely to focus on faces, while conservatives paid greater attention to portions of images that evoked fear or patriotic symbols. How we see politics seems, therefore, to be a direct result of how we see the world—and liberals and conservatives seem to be “hardwired” to see the world different from one another.

All of this research suggests that social scientists need to think about genetics (or at least its physiological consequences) for understanding political opinions and behavior. There is reason to be skeptical of some or all of these claims—which I will discuss in tomorrow’s post—but the evidence is mounting that genetics play some role in who we are. And, as the ‘indirect,’ physiological studies suggest, our political behavior is in many ways simply another manifestation of our evolved responses to social situations. Understanding the genetic basis of our political behavior (however small that influence may be) therefore serves not only to explain politics but to explain our cognition and behavior more broadly.