Is your political preference based in biology?

Listen to this story: 
February 21, 2012 - 6:00pm

Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News


The way you vote is determined by your genetic make-up.

Or is it?

"People are proud of their political beliefs, and they think they're sensible, and they're appropriate in light of the experiences they've had," said John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor. "Well, you know, maybe they're kind of partially shaped by forces you're not aware of."

Hibbing's talking about the findings of his latest research, conducted with UNL political science professor Kevin Smith and UNL psychology professor Mike Dodd, which was recently published in a scientific journal. Their study examined how people's subconscious reactions affect their political leanings.

John Hibbing, political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Kevin R. Smith, political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Most research into political beliefs has been based on people's conscious decisions, but these three wanted to dig a little deeper. To do so, Hibbing, Smith and Dodd studied participants' responses to pleasant and unpleasant images by measuring skin conductance changes (which indicate an emotional response) and by tracking eye movement.

"So just to give you a few examples, the positive images that we would show would be things like a sunset, or a bowl of fruit, or a happy child, or a lady having a good time skiing down a brisk mountain slope," Hibbing said. "And the negative images would be things like an open wound with maggots in them, or poo in a toilet, or somebody eating worms."

The team said those who identify as liberal tended to focus on the pleasant images, while those who consider themselves politically conservative focused more on the unpleasant images.

"This may be why conservatives are often accused by liberals of kind of inflating threats that are out there," Hibbing said. "And it may explain why, from a conservative vantage point, it appears that liberals just don't get it, to use the common phrase, because they're not focusing on or reacting to the negative stimuli in the same way."

But not everyone's happy with the team's conclusions - liberals dislike the idea that humans aren't changeable, Hibbing said, while conservatives think that "a bunch of liberal academics" are trying to make them look like they're biologically flawed somehow.

Evan Charney, associate professor of political science at Duke University

Evan Charney, associate professor of political science at Duke University, simply thinks it's faulty research; he called their results "creative interpretation," and said trying to predict behavior based on biology is "absurd."

"All that they know is differences as to where the eye is fixating. This does not give them any information whatsoever about what kind of emotional or cognitive response an individual is having to whatever he's looking at," Charney said. "Once again, they're inferring a response to fit their narrative of the differences between liberals and conservatives."

Charney focuses his research on the research of others - or, more accurately, on debunking it. Specifically, he looks at those that try to pin human behaviors or conditions to individual genes.

"First of all, genes do not activate themselves," he said. "In fact, on its own, a gene isn't capable of doing or causing anything. The extent to which a gene is capable of being transcribed is regulated by what's called the epigenome, which is a complex biochemical mechanism."

For example, he said current estimates suggest more than 7,500 genes control 45 percent of variation in human height. He listed dozens of conditions and traits that different studies have attributed to a single gene variant, ranging from alcoholism to bi-polar disorder.

Technically, Charney said, it's true that everything goes back to biology - we're biological beings, after all - but this is a gross oversimplification.

The UNL professors are used to being political science pariahs, however. In fact, when they first started to question traditional political science assumptions, Smith said they were afraid to talk about it - even to each other.

And they said the skepticism of their peers is healthy - though Hibbing did refer to "hackneyed disciplinary norms" at one point, and said other social sciences like psychology, sociology and economics have long incorporated biology.

Smith attributed some of the resistance to past atrocities committed in the name of biology, like eugenics programs, which sought to "purify" humanity's collective gene pool - think Nazi Germany.

"People tend to get a little squeamish when you're talking about biology and politics," Smith said. "You know, whether there are going to be certain things associated with biologically-based traits that are going to be used to disadvantage one group or another."

But if their findings hold true, Smith said they hope for the opposite result - that it will lead to greater understanding among people of different political persuasions:

"If you recognize that the person that you disagree with on a political issue literally experiences and sees the world different from you - in other words, they're not being obdurate or obstinate or irrational, they genuinely experience a different world than you - perhaps you're a little more likely to try and meet them in the middle."

And with a contentious presidential campaign dominating national conversation, a little political tolerance could go a long way.



blog comments powered by Disqus