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Does a ‘Political Gene’ Determine if We Are Liberal or Conservative?

Mike Hower
| Friday November 8th, 2013 | 0 Comments
Image Credit: Outside the Beltway

Image Credit: Outside the Beltway

It is often said that we tend to adopt our parents’ political leanings, but what if we actually inherited them?

That’s not to say we evolved to be liberal or conservative. Our early human ancestors were more concerned with hunting and gathering and not getting eaten by bears than they were with elections, Gallup polls and hating on Obamacare.

But it is safe to say that the ideologies associated with each political leaning goes well beyond the ballot box.

In 2008, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conducted a study with a group of 26 adults with “strong political beliefs” to determine if there was a correlation between physical sensitivities and political beliefs. The researchers discovered that individuals with lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support “liberal” issues such as foreign aid, open immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, while those displaying higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor “conservative” issues such as high defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

The research indicated that people who have strong basic emotional responses to threats tend to develop more conservative political views.

A separate UK study concluded that “substantial differences exist in the cognitive styles of liberals and conservatives on psychological measures.” The researchers found that conservatives tended to have larger amygdalas, a part of the brain that learns emotional responses.

Former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, once coined the now-famous phrase: “All politics is local.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: “All politics is emotional.”

What does emotion have to do with genetics? Well, everything. According to biopsychologist Victor Johnston, author of Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions, emotions are not an accident of nature but are the basis of learning and reasoning, which helps us to adapt to a complex, rapidly changing environment. What we see, hear, smell and feel is has been shaped by millions of years of evolution.

Remarkably, it is even possible to predict the future political proclivities in children. In 1969, Jack and Jeanne Block, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley devised an experiment aimed at determining how deep our political leanings run and how early in life these leanings begin to form. The Blocks placed a group of 128 nursery school children under the close observation of several teachers for a period of seven months. Each of the caretakers then measured the three-year-olds’ personalities and social interactions, using a single standardized test. At age four, the same children underwent this process again with a different set of teachers at a second nursery school. After cataloguing the scores for each child, the Blocks locked the numbers away.

Several decades later, in 2005 the results were published by the Journal of Research in Personality. According to the study’s abstract:

“Preschool children who 20 years later were relatively liberal were characterized as: developing close relationships,self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under-controlled, and resilient. Preschool children subsequently relatively conservative at age 23 were described as: feeling easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable.”

Each of us has around 20,000 genes, the working subunits of DNA that contains a particular set of instructions, usually coding for a particular protein or for a particular function. In layman’s terms, genes determine everything about who we are, such as if we are short or tall, have blue eyes or brown eyes, or can roll our tongues or not.

The evidence shows genetics indeed affects our personal politics, but there is no “political gene.” You could not isolate a “liberal” or “conservative” gene and insert them into an embryo to produce a Hillary Clinton- or Rand Paul-loving baby. Rather, genes provide the biological context which guides, through emotion, how we interact with our environment and ultimately determines what we believe.

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with public relations campaigns and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower).


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