Left, right: The brain science of politics
Sick of partisanship in Washington? Blame science.
A growing body of experimental research is finding evidence suggesting that, to some degree, political inclinations and ideological leanings may be tied to innate factors like a person’s biology, physiology and genetics.
In fact, Al Gore recently raised the thorny issue when he spoke about political differences in “human nature.”
“I think, first of all, scientists now know that there is, in human nature, a divide between what we sometimes call ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives,’” the former vice president said on MSNBC earlier this year. “And it gives an advantage, you can speculate, to the human species to have some people who are temperamentally inclined to try to change the future, experiment with new things, and others who are temperamentally inclined to say, ‘Wait a minute, not too fast, let’s make sure we don’t do anything rash here.’”
The area of research is relatively new, but researchers say they have already made some startling findings, leaving them with no doubt that they are on the right track. But the nascent field is still struggling to win acceptance in many corners of academia, said Prof. George Marcus of Williams College, an expert in political psychology and the author of the 2012 book “Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics, and Politics”.
Even the terms that different groups of researchers use to describe their own work illustrate the debate over how strong a connection to make between biology and belief: Some use names like “biopolitics” or “genopolitics,” while others don’t go so far, relying instead on broader titles, like “political psychology,” that suggest less of a cause-and-effect.
“Those interested in new work find it exciting,” Marcus told POLITICO. “Those committed to established ways of thinking are pretty much wedded to rejecting it so far…kind of like climate science.”
Marcus, whose book explores the notion that factors like genes and brain make-up help shape ideology, predicted that view will eventually become “the dominant way of thinking about how things go,” though he noted that many questions in the burgeoning area remain unanswered.
Another leading scholar on the subject, Professor John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, added, “It’s not surprising that there are significant chunks of my colleagues that think it’s not a good way to go…but they’re coming around to it…We’re hoping that Mick Jagger was right: That time is on our side.”
While researchers are discovering possible physiological and genetic connections that could help account for differences in how liberals and conservatives experience fear or even how those on the left and right think about the issue of immigration, to take one policy example, the academics also say their work has real-world implications and could mark the beginning of important understandings of what’s really behind our seemingly intractable ideological divisions.
Hibbing trained as a political scientist and described himself as a “normal kind of guy” who studied Congress and public opinion— until about 13 years ago, when he decided that “maybe the things going on, surveys, weren’t able to get to a lot of things we bring into our heads, things we’re not aware of”.
Since then, he and other colleagues—in Lincoln, Neb., and around the country—have emerged as pioneers in the field of what he calls “biology and politics.” Hibbing and members of his lab are currently working on a book titled “Predisposed: Liberals, conservatives and the biology of political difference” that’s slated for publication this fall. The work will summarize research examining subjects like the physiological and neurological differences between liberals and conservatives, as well as differences in taste—liberals, for instance, tend to enjoy spicy foods and be open to new eating experiences while conservatives would rather eat their go-to favorites.
One key finding that “Predisposed” will highlight: conservatives and liberals respond differently when presented with extremely pleasant images—like people skiing, fruit baskets and sunsets—and disturbing pictures, like fires, vomit and rodents.
Study participants, after answering an extensive battery of questions about their political beliefs, were hooked up to sensors that test skin conductance—the measure of how quickly electricity moves through the body, which sometimes manifests itself in outward signs like sweaty palms. When conservatives viewed the negative images, researchers measured a greater increase in skin conductance when compared with liberals, indicating those on the right were responding more strongly.
“If you’re responding [strongly] to those things, you want to protect yourself, your family, your country,” Hibbing said of conservatives reacting intensely to the negative images.
Conservatives also spent more time focused on the unpleasant images than liberals did.
“If you focus on the negative, perhaps it makes more sense to you to believe in strong defense or be reluctant about immigration,” Hibbing said.
In another experiment, subjects looked at a computer screen featuring a cartoon face, with instructions to hit the space bar when they saw a black dot appear on the screen. When the cartoon’s eyes were looking away from the dot, liberals were much slower to hit the space bar than when the eyes were turned to the same side of the screen on which the dot was located. Conservatives weren’t affected the the cartoon’s gaze and tapped the space bar just as quickly, whether the cartoon was looking at the dot or away from it.
Hibbing says that’s because liberals were much more focused on the gaze of the cartoon character.
So what’s the political takeaway from the study? Hibbing says, “Liberals will say it’s a good thing, you should be influenced by eyes on a screen. Conservatives say we should be strong individuals, we shouldn’t be influenced by people around us. It’s whether you’re empathetic and in touch, or strong and independent.”
Hibbing acknowledged that to some in the political world and beyond, such work “sounds mushy and sloppy.” But taken together, he said, clear trends are emerging.
“The pattern is that conservatives are somewhat more attuned and responsive to negative features of the environment, negative situations, negative stimuli,” he said.
He stressed that the research doesn’t mean conservatives are “scared” or liberals are “selfish and hedonistic,” as some of his critics have charged.
“We’re just saying, no, they just pay attention to different things,” Hibbing said. “It probably makes quite a bit of sense to pay attention to bad things. Maybe it’s a positive thing for society to have a combination, a mixture of people who are pretty acutely attuned to dangerous, negative things, and [those] who are maybe more carefree.”
His latest research also finds that people with higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, are less likely to vote and participate in the political process. Cortisol, which can be measured through blood or saliva samples, was found in higher levels among people whose voting records indicated that they didn’t go to the polls often, and vice versa.
“Consistent voters tend to have low cortisol levels,” Hibbing said, noting that the findings were statistically significant. “Politics is pretty stressful, you could argue…going to the polls could make you nervous, and people with high cortisol tend to avoid that.”
As for any genetic component of current research, Professor Rose McDermott of Brown University stressed to POLITICO that there’s no such thing as a “liberal” gene or a “conservative” gene. But McDermott, who has conducted extensive research focused on the relationship between political behavior and genetics, is part of a group of researchers who are studying how genetics – “broadly construed,” she says – can influence political preferences and ideology.
“It’s not that anyone thinks there’s a gene for liberalism, but to think there are aspects of social and the political world influenced by our genetic and biological tendencies,” McDermott said.
She recently co-authored a long paper summing up where the study of politics and genetics stands today —much of the work has relied on studies of twins, a method that has long been the “gold standard” for exploring genetic links to politics. That process allows researchers to see “what part of the outcome is related to genetics, and what is related to common experience, for example the family you grow up in.” Those studies have found that between 40 and 60 percent of differences in political ideology, across a population, can be explained by genetics.
Even decades ago there were tantalizing signs of the link between biology and politics that researchers are putting more focus on exploring today. One early study from the 1970’s, for instance, found that identical twins correlated more highly than did fraternal twins “on measures of ideology constructed from a scale of attitudes, including the death penalty, ethnocentrism, morality, unions, unemployment, and abortion, among others,” her report said.
McDermott acknowledged that while the study of politics and genetics is growing, it’s not yet “mainstream.” But she sees significant policy implications in the research she has conducted. One study, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Political Science, found that people who she says are genetically inclined to be more fearful—who possess stronger social phobias and feel less comfortable in settings with unfamiliar people—tend to be conservative on issues like immigration.
“So the best way to think about it is, there’s individual difference in how much underlying fear individuals have as they enter the world,” she said. “Some are more prepared to be afraid of things than other people, that’s just individual difference based in part on genetic backgrounds…and so you can show that people who have higher levels of social fear…those people tend to have more anti-immigration attitudes.”
That doesn’t mean that conservatives are inherently more prone to uneasiness in the face of new experiences or people—but according to this study, it does mean that naturally nervous people tend to lean right.
“What we find is, it’s not the case that conservatives are more fearful, but fearful people are more conservative,” she said. “We were able to make that association because we were able to look in our data at parents and children. What you find is really fearful people have more conservative children, as opposed to conservative people having more fearful children. What’s really driving it is, people who have higher baselines of social phobia are much more likely to be conservative.”
Washington could learn a thing or two from the study of the intersection between politics and science, experts in the field say.
McDermott she said that the findings of the fear study, along with other work related to genetics and politics, should shape how people think about hot-topic political issues.
“I think the immigration thing is the best example [of real-world implications],” she said. “It’s a debate going on in Congress right now, and there’s no recognition of the fact that people start with very different fundamental proclivities toward issues such as ‘segregation’”—a term that she uses to encompass issues ranging from immigration to same-sex marriage.
“There’s this underlying notion in Western democratic culture that we all start off on an equal playing field…that it’s just a matter of discourse, if we all sit down and talk about it, we can compromise,” she continued. “But if we understand things differently, we actually don’t have the common ground we think we do…I think that genetics influences differences in our emotional realities, and we may not always fully recognize that.”
Hibbing, who has presented his findings to a number of people in the political world—including Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) and to attendees at a conference organized by the Department of Defense — told POLITICO that he sees ways to reduce partisanship in his research findings.
“In terms of identity, and correlating who’s on the left and who’s on the right, it might make people a little more understanding of their political opponents,” he said. “Instead of saying they are stupid, uninformed—all of these things may be true—but [there are people who] are really perceiving the world in a different fashion than you do.”
If partisans understood that some of their differences with the other side could be rooted in science, rather than perceived intransigence, that could take some rancor out of policy debates, he said.
“You sit side by side, but really you’re worlds apart because you’re just absorbing things in a different way,” Hibbing said. “It may be naive, but I’m kind of hopeful that if people take seriously that people can’t assume [other] people are seeing the same things I am, even though I still think he’s wrong, maybe it will help…understand what can be done in order to come together.”
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