Regarding political differences, just blame biology

By Cynthia M. Allen

cmallen@star-telegram.com

In an age of heightened political correctness, the suggestion that a person’s political orientation might be related to physiology, genes or brain development would probably be considered gauche if not wholly offensive.

One isn’t born with a propensity to be liberal or conservative — such beliefs have long been thought to be wholly within human control; formulated over time, influenced by those we encounter, animated by personal experiences and solidified (one would hope) by thoughtful consideration.

Humans are nothing if not rational creatures, after all.

Or are they?

It may be that, even when it comes to politics, people are less the products of their environments and more the products of their own biology — this according to a growing body of scientific research — genopolitics or political neuroscience — which suggests exactly that.

“Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA,” wrote John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford, three political scientists (two from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one from Rice University) in a study published in  Behavioral and Brain Sciences this summer.

That postulation is not entirely novel; it’s largely consistent with the finding of a 2012 University of South Carolina study which concluded that “Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values.”

Similarly, a  2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggested that self-identified liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when facing decisions that involve risk.

The Hibbing study, for which the researchers reviewed a large body of evidence, including studies of brain imaging and eye activity as well as some of their own experiments, found that people who identify as conservatives possess a “negativity bias.”

And no — that does not mean that conservatives are more prejudiced.

Such a bias presents itself in the much stronger reactions to negative stimuli (usually images of horrific or disturbing things) displayed by conservatives, and is believed to support the underpinnings of traditionally conservative ideology — a desire for order, stability and security.

The comparatively more limited reaction to aversive stimuli exhibited by liberals is consistent with the sense that they are more open to new experiences and more likely to avoid conflict and harm.

Oddly enough, in spite of their tendency to be more attuned to the dangers of the world, conservatives are consistently happier individuals than their counterparts. Liberals, take note.

The findings of Hibbing and his co-authors are largely supported by others in the field. Along with their report, they published 26 peer commentary articles (and their responses to them), most of which accept their general finding.

And unlike most politically-motivated people, Hibbing and his cohorts are careful not to make value judgments about their conclusions.

They cite good evolutionary reasons to possess a strong negativity bias — particularly during epochs when heightened threat awareness was critical to survival. (Recent events suggest such a bias may not be without its value in modern times, either.) But too much vigilance, they suggest, can also be an impediment to progress, something liberals argue to this day.

What is so striking about their research, though, is the notion that in spite of the stark political disparities that have existed since the formulation of human society, there seems to be a certain natural balance to political differences.

While political paradigms are in constant flux, the idea the people might naturally favor one ideology over another suggests that political diversity has value and exists for good reason.

It’s also a reminder of how despite our regular attempts to defy or circumvent nature, we are often beholden to it and frequently limited by our own biology.

So conservatives, go easy on your liberal brethren, and liberals, give your conservative colleagues the benefit of the doubt.

After all, their political affiliation may not be their fault.

Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166. Twitter: @cjmallen12

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