Gene Expression

Conservatives have more fear

FuturePundit points me to a new paper in Science, Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits:

Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals’ experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

ScienceNow has a write up for the rest of us. Brandom Keim has posted figures 1 2 and 3 from the paper. The physiological correlates to differences in such complex phenotypes are very interesting, because a large number of behavior genetic studies show significant heritabilities for many of these traits. By heritability, I mean that you can predict an X proportion of the variation on trait Y from the variation of genes. Does this mean that there was selection for conservatism and liberalism in the past? Does this mean that there are genes for conservatism and liberalism? NO!!! That’s just plain retarded.

Most behavioral traits have many upstream variables, some of which interact with each other. In the older way of thinking a behavioral trait was purely a function of various exogenous inputs; that is, one was a blank slate whose outlook was shaped by environment. A more nuanced view strongly suggests that many behavioral traits are modulated by various predispositions which one is born with. On the level of a population we can make some general assertions about the nature of the relation of various independent variables to the dependent variable. That doesn’t mean that we are saying something as naive as genotype 1 always results in phenotype 1. As an illustration, consider male homosexuality. It seems there’s a strong biological predisposition for this trait. Most males prefer vaginal intercourse with a female over anal intercourse with a male, to the point where they may never experience the latter. But, a subset of males who are imprisoned do engage in intercourse with other males, despite the likelihood that these individuals are only marginally more likely to have any innate biologically biased preference for this behavior. Yet changing the exogenous environmental variables (i.e., simply removing the possibility of sex with women) can result in a shift in the behavior. This does not mean that homosexuality is predominatly environmental, that would be a retarded inference (unless of course 80% of men were imprisoned, in which case most of the variation in the population of sexual behavior might be controlled by an environmental parameter).

i-a574cfd2e0fc1359f190f17f2ab58335-conservpol.jpg

The more complicated model above is a possible illustration of what might be going on. I decided to use the Big Five personality traits since I know that Openness is correlated with being politically liberal. That doesn’t mean I think that these are the only mediating variables of note. Rather, I just wanted to illustrate in a concrete manner what the heritabilities might mean, and how they’re playing out. I also want to emphasize that terms like “liberal” and “conservative” should be thought of like “tall” or “short,” not 6 feet 2 inches vs. 5 feet 3 inches. In other words, they are relative traits which can only be understood by the whole distribution of the population.

For example, consider if the “conservative” psychology is typified by a heuristic & bias which orients toward conformity to current norms. In contrast, the “liberal” psychology has a more relaxed heuristic and is less biased toward current norms. That means naturally that liberal personality types would “random walk” out of the the central tendency of the population more often, so that you would see average differences between the two groups. But, that doesn’t define the distribution itself. What is conservative in 2008 might very well be rather liberal in 1950. For example, arguing against gay marriage but accepting the possibility of civil unions.

So it’s complicated. But it’s comprehensible. Does this matter for you? The physiological responses above are interesting, because it seems like you might be able to test at a very young age for them. If you are an adoptive parent perhaps you might want to screen your potential children for political compatibility. A few weeks ago I listened to a documentary about a woman in Argentina who had been kidnapped as an infant and adopted by a different family. In her particular circumstances here biological parents were left-wing activists killed by a military junta. Her adoptive family were associated with the right-wing junta. She did not find out about her origins until she was 18, but, she observed that she had always had political differences with the family in which she was raised and was active in left-wing politics as a teenager. Remember she was adopted as an infant! This does not mean that I believe that the causal sequence here is predominantly genetic; I’m simply saying that examples such as this illustrate the possibility, and twin and adoption studies strongly suggest that political orientation has a large heritable component. In any case, even if you have a child whose predispositions are different from those of the family into which they are adopted or born (you never know how the alleles will resegregate!), if you know the biological bias ahead of time that might facilitate appropriate “reeducation.” After all, environment does matter and might make a difference if one is willing to put the effort into it. Though I would add that I’m personally skeptical that if self-actualization and happiness are what anyone wants for their children that such reeducation toward parental norms will foster those ends. But I guess whether personal happiness is more important than some absolute standard of right and wrong is a normative question at the end of the day itself, and my mooting of the choice shows my liberal hand.*

P.S. I hope readers immediately note that an obvious inference from what I say above is that conservatives, all things being equal, should be able to engage more easily in concerted collective action on a broader scale than liberals. Within group conformity is generally a positive trait when it comes to individuals coalescing together to operate in a quasi-organismic manner. The perception that liberals tend to fracture into squabbling interest groups with different priorities about what should be the first and primary course of action might be less surprising. “Us vs. them” has more power when you fear the them….

Related: Heritability of voting. Genetic vs. heritable trait.

Addendum: One of FuturePundit‘s commenters alludes to epigenetics….

* Yes, I’m personally generally libertarian, but many of these psychological classifications tend to cluster libertarians with liberals. This is what Virginia Postrel might term a “dynamist” thing. Because of these peculiar contingencies the r-squared of political classifications of Left-Right on psychological classifications of Left-Right might be less than 1.

Comments

  1. #1 Oldfart
    September 19, 2008

    Having dealt with the right wing for the past 8 years or so directly, there is no doubt in my mind that at least the extreme evangelical right wing is a result of a genetic defect. The defect may have complex origins, but it is there.

  2. #2 Paul
    September 19, 2008

    Hmmmm … so conservatives are more easily startled by sudden changes in their environment?

    Is this a surprise?

  3. #3 mei
    September 19, 2008

    Oldfart:
    That kind of hatespeech promoptes an environment of alienation. There’s a reason the Nazis and Soviets missed out on some great german scientific minds as WWII wrought on. Inotllerance.

  4. #4 Michael
    September 19, 2008

    I’m skeptical on this whole idea that even complex genetics could have a substantial impact on peoples political views. I come to this conclusion having witnessed both myself and others swing wildly from one set of political beliefs to another.

    I favor environment as the major cause of these beliefs. And not just the environment one grows up in but the environment one is in throughout their life.

  5. #5 edward2020
    September 19, 2008

    Oldfart – are you saying that being ‘sensitive’ to environmental factors that induce fear is always a bad thing? Seems like it would have definite advantages in some situations.

    I’ve gotta agree with Michael. Though what I know about genetics would about fill a thimble, I have studied politics for years. It seems to me that people’s political identification is awfully volatile. We don’t see it here in the US as much, but how do you explain the situation in countries that use proportional voting wherein the various parties quite often get very divergent portions of the vote over time?

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    September 19, 2008

    She did not find out about her origins until she was 18, but, she observed that she had always had political differences with the family in which she was raised and was active in left-wing politics as a teenager. Remember she was adopted as an infant!

    Isn’t it common that children of conservative parents are further left than their parents? More common than the reverse even?

  7. #7 G.D.
    September 19, 2008

    A funny side-note here: Without knowing very much about the subject matter, it does strike me that the “skeptics”, edward2020 and Michael prefix their arguments with: “It seems to me that …” and “I’m skeptical on this whole idea that … I come to this conclusion having witnessed both myself and others …” respectively. Well … I come here directly from a blog-debate concerning evidence-based medicine vs. woo …

  8. #8 TGGP
    September 19, 2008

    David Marjanovic, that may be age effects. The young have less money and are lower in status than the old, so they are more favorable towards shake-things-up leftism. People tend to get more conservative as they age.

  9. #9 John Emerson
    September 19, 2008

    As I’ve said, by and large I think that this kind of study is of limited value. However, I can’t resist a hanging curve ball:

    Liberals have been calling homophobic nativist authoritarian militarists “bed-wetters” for years.

    Sorry guys. I couldn’t help it.

  10. #10 razib
    September 19, 2008

    Isn’t it common that children of conservative parents are further left than their parents? More common than the reverse even?I’m skeptical on this whole idea that even complex genetics could have a substantial impact on peoples political views. I come to this conclusion having witnessed both myself and others swing wildly from one set of political beliefs to another.

    small N.

    I favor environment as the major cause of these beliefs. And not just the environment one grows up in but the environment one is in throughout their life.

    off-topic. we’re talking about the *variation* of these beliefs. not the specific proximate cause of the beliefs.

    We don’t see it here in the US as much, but how do you explain the situation in countries that use proportional voting wherein the various parties quite often get very divergent portions of the vote over time?

    easy, you think of it quantitatively. parties don’t have “very divergent portions,” they have specific deviations year-to-year which can or can’t be explained by the model. but again, you also need to read my post closer: we’re talking *relative* differences, not *absolute* ones. scaling may change.

  11. #11 razib
    September 19, 2008

    i’ll make this explicit to head off future comments:

    i’m not talking about a model like so:

    gene 1, gene 2, gene 3… -> phenotype of trait X

    rather:

    variation gene 1, variation 1, variation 2 … -> variation of phenotype X

    the key is variation. this means for example that it is totally explicable that person A could have different politics at time 1 and time 1 + n. it is totally explicable that the person A would have different politics than their parents. the more important issue would rank order or position along the distribution. but, since genes can only explain part of the variation, then there will be a large unaccounted for environmental component.

  12. #12 Escuerd
    September 19, 2008

    Michael: “I’m skeptical on this whole idea that even complex genetics could have a substantial impact on peoples political views. I come to this conclusion having witnessed both myself and others swing wildly from one set of political beliefs to another.”

    You’re concluding that because people can change their political views that genes couldn’t predispose someone one way or another? That seems silly.

    I personally know many people whose weights have fluctuated throughout their lives. Therefore, genes have no substantial impact on weight.

    Understand that “nature vs. nurture” problems are about explaining variation in traits, not defining either genes or environment as the cause of the trait in question. At some trivial level, both genes and environment are causally responsible for any human trait. What’s interesting is determining how much of the variation in these traits is due to variation in genes or in environment.

  13. #13 Escuerd
    September 19, 2008

    Whoops, I’m slow on the draw.

  14. #14 razib
    September 19, 2008

    no worries, some might prefer a more prosy exposition.

  15. #15 razib
    September 19, 2008

    if what Escuerd and i say are surprising, please read about heritability NOW.

  16. #16 another Michael
    September 19, 2008

    There may be something to this: I have a knack for sneaking up on people (usually without even trying) and the people I manage to startle are usually more conservative than I.

    Hehehe . . .

  17. #17 razib
    September 19, 2008

    There may be something to this: I have a knack for sneaking up on people (usually without even trying) and the people I manage to startle are usually more conservative than I.

    yeah, i used to enjoy that too! though never noticed a political trend.

  18. #18 Aristothenes
    September 19, 2008

    The important part, as in all good science, is to slow down and examine what the data really says. The data says that conservative attitudes are associated with the markers of overeager fear responses. But, though these markers seem to be somewhat heritable, they are also very obviously malleable with work-witness the stress inoculation process of outdoor survival training or martial arts or cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapy for phobias. I’m sure some idiot news outlet will run away with this with a “liberal gene” nonsense headline, but what it really says is far more interesting-there is empirical support for the notion that conservative politics are motivated by fearfulness. That in and of itself is a powerful bit of trivia.

  19. #19 Jason Malloy
    September 19, 2008

    Reminds me of that study with San Francisco children, where the liberals grew up to be the alpha males, and the conservatives grew up to be the whiny pencil-necks. Riiight.

  20. #20 Michael
    September 20, 2008

    Escuerd-

    I personally know many people whose weights have fluctuated throughout their lives. Therefore, genes have no substantial impact on weight.

    In an attempt to mock my argument you’ve actually destroyed your’s. People whose weight problems are caused by genetics (whether overweight or underweight) don’t really fluctuate their mass throughout their lives, they stay either over or under. Fluctuation is very strong evidence that the weight problem is caused by behavior (poor diet, over-eating or laziness) followed by a diet or exercise plan.

    Thanks for playing though.

  21. #21 razib
    September 20, 2008

    People whose weight problems are caused by genetics (whether overweight or underweight) don’t really fluctuate their mass throughout their lives, they stay either over or under. Fluctuation is very strong evidence that the weight problem is caused by behavior (poor diet, over-eating or laziness) followed by a diet or exercise plan.

    all of this has nothing to do with heritability. your original comment misunderstood the post. in short claims about *particular* individuals do not falsify or necessarily speak to population-level parameter such as heritability. you are talking about a *genetic trait*, not a *heritable one* see this post on the distinction.

  22. #22 tom bri
    September 20, 2008

    Fun argument. Thanks all.

    I wonder how I would fall out in that study, very conservative in my personal beliefs, but quite libertarian politically.

    I have never noticed that conservatives were more fearful as a trend than liberals. But I have noticed that liberals tend to be much more prone to anger than conservatives.

    Is that just my bias? Has there ever been a “study” investigating this?

    Besides, conservatives often refer to liberals as “soft-headed” or “naive”. Maybe the world really is a dangerous place, and the conservatives just are more aware of that than the liberals. Suppose? For the sake of argument?

    Just to put an opposite spin on this “study” that is obviously intended as another attack on political opponents.

  23. #23 razib
    September 20, 2008

    Besides, conservatives often refer to liberals as “soft-headed” or “naive”. Maybe the world really is a dangerous place, and the conservatives just are more aware of that than the liberals. Suppose? For the sake of argument?

    right. i think what this study is really measuring is openness or its inverse. i think it is likely that to be very open to new experiences you have to have a relative lack of aversion and fear response to the disconcertingly novel.

  24. #24 Escuerd
    September 20, 2008

    Michael: “People whose weight problems are caused by genetics (whether overweight or underweight) don’t really fluctuate their mass throughout their lives, they stay either over or under. Fluctuation is very strong evidence that the weight problem is caused by behavior (poor diet, over-eating or laziness) followed by a diet or exercise plan.”

    I think that you still haven’t understood the point that the discussion is not about what is “caused by genetics” or “caused by environment” but about how much variability each cause accounts for in the population.

    This is an essential point, and you can’t make any progress in a nature vs. nurture discussion without understanding it. Razib’s earlier post is actually an excellent explanation of it.

    The point of my “mockery” was to illustrate that the mere existence of an environmental component (and a trait varying with time doesn’t even strictly imply that) does not mean there is no heritable component. Genes needn’t be some overpowering force to be having an effect.

  25. #25 Oldfart
    September 20, 2008

    Let’s see. A (possibly poor) political joke makes me a Nazi Sympathizer? Next you’ll be saying that I’m a holocaust denier.

    Not a joke. If you want intolerance, look to the right wing. If you want hatred, look to the right wing. If you want ignorance, look to the right wing.

    Now, come on back and tell me how much of a Nazi I am.

  26. #26 Randall Parker
    September 20, 2008

    Consider OldFart’s reaction:

    Having dealt with the right wing for the past 8 years or so directly, there is no doubt in my mind that at least the extreme evangelical right wing is a result of a genetic defect. The defect may have complex origins, but it is there.

    His comment illustrates why I do not expect better understanding of biological causes of political differences to lead to better understanding and tolerance. Each group is going to see the opposing group as the genetic deviates and defectives from the one true correct way of thinking.

  27. #27 Robert haston
    September 20, 2008

    It seems to me that any study of differing political genes would have to include where they would come from. Harpending discovered that the human “cultural explosion” 60,000 years ago accelerated our adaptation rates up to 100 fold. The sum of this change has been equal to the half-million years before it.

    Human culture was the engine behind this change, so cultural genes would be among the most likely adaptations. For example, art and diplomacy was essentially non-existent before this era. Now who dominates nearly all of the art world (excluding country music and violent action movie actors)? Who loves diplomacy while thier oponnents loathe it? Selective mating and migration between blue cities and red states could explain why just like genes for lactose tolerance, genes for cultural tolerance haven’t blended in.

    Hibbing wrote the foreword to my book on the topic – you can read a big excerpt at my site:

    http://www.politicalspecies.com

  28. #28 razib
    September 20, 2008

    Each group is going to see the opposing group as the genetic deviates and defectives from the one true correct way of thinking.

    yeah, true. most people aren’t that bright and don’t have the ability to tease apart their normative presuppositions and their positive model of the world. probably a pleistocene mind thing.

    It seems to me that any study of differing political genes would have to include where they would come from.

    there are no “political genes” as such. see the model above.

  29. #29 tom bri
    September 20, 2008

    Gotta remember that Evangelicals did NOT tend to vote conservatively until as recently as the Reagan years. Carter was quite popular with Protestant Christians of most stripes, and he was and is very liberal.

    Evangelicals became a political force when they they came to believe that one party was attacking their way of life. Until recently, for example, abortion was not an issue of right vs left. Both parties have cleaned out the unbelievers in their ranks, creating polarization on this issue politically where it wasn’t before.

    It is a vicious circle. Parties need issues to identify themselves as distinct. Voters move towards the party that most quickly moves in their preferred direction.

    The same can be said of the gun control issue. There is no particular reason that liberals should be anti-gun and conservatives pro. In most countries it is the opposite, or has been historically at least. The NRA continues to support very liberal candidates if they are also pro gun.

    But the parties see the advantages of clear distinctions on this and many other issues, and try to force members to tow the line.

    Forcing Evangelicals into the Republican camp was a side effect of Democrats attempting to solidify hold on major urban areas. Or looked at from the other side, Republicans gave up urban areas in a calculation that a rural/Southern/etc base could support them.

    The Evangelical vote is up for grabs. They might have no problem with liberal social goals and programs if they were otherwise allowed to live in peace.

  30. #30 Tod
    September 20, 2008

    If liberals can’t easily act collectively that would explain the dearth of extreme liberal (domestic andforeign policy) goverments. Has there ever been a great power that was liberal in this way.

    What kind of political veiws do you think people who liked Death Wish, Dirty Harry, or Red Dawn have. Lots of threatening images and gunshots Pysiological sensitivity might sometimes be to things that are attractive to that person.

  31. #31 razib
    September 20, 2008

    “liberal” and “conservative” should be compared on a *within* societal basis. states by their nature tend to be about demarcating and us vs. them, so i don’t think this distinction lends itself easily to “conservative” or “liberal” nations.

  32. #32 Tod
    September 20, 2008

    Yes states seem to be non-liberal by their nature for the reasons you give, (offensive realism as Mearsheimer calls it in relation to foreign policy).

    I specified great powers to exclude Sweden, now there it would have to be said, is a thoroughgoing liberal state in all aspects of policy.

    Hawks’ objection about confounding religion and conservatism seems wrong to me, how religious are Swedes compared to the rest of the world? Compared to liberals I would expect even the most representative sample of conservatives to be very religious.

  33. #33 tom bri
    September 20, 2008

    Sweden it must be remembered practiced a racist/classist eugenics program until rather recently. Poor, defective, and ‘outsider’ groups were ‘encouraged’ to submit to sterilization.

  34. #34 Tod
    September 20, 2008

    The politics of extreme liberals clearly show agreebleness (unselfish, forgiving, with faith in human nature) as the hypothesis predicts, but do extreme liberals exibit these traits in their day to day social interactions. I’ve sometimes read of a disconnect between the values humanitarians espoused and the way they treated those around them.

    Neuroticism to me means seeing things as a threat that aren’t and it carries a connotation of being ineffectual. In person perhaps extreme conservatives are like this but by my way of thinking the politics of extreme conservatives would be better described as “tough-mindedness (one of Eysenck’s personality dimensions )

  35. #35 Tod
    September 20, 2008

    tom bri
    If you are talking about Roma true enough but It should be remembered that the Czech Republic was sterilizing Roma without consent in 2004 and it still finds reasons to take their children away.

    Look at the support Sweden gives to the Palestinians. What is in it for them ?

    The only thing that might be called illiberal in Sweden today is their rigourously enforced policy on drugs.

  36. #36 Saladman
    September 21, 2008

    I came here from John Hawks blog and I’m inclined to accept his and Razib’s critiques of the limitations of the paper.

    But let me grant the point for the sake of argument. People seem to be taking “measurably higher physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images” as fearful (bad/cowardly) and lower sensitivities as less fearful (good/brave). Could the higher physical sensitivities correlate not (or not only) to fear but also to awareness of environment or a stronger fight or flight response, especially a willingness to fight to defend the self or family? This would make the attitudes on gun control, strong foreign defense and capital punishment self explanatory. (And the authors even class conservative politics as “protective.”)

    Or consider the implications of a stronger or weakerr response to “pictures of a very large spider on a person’s face, a dazed person with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it.” Are conservatives really scared, or do liberals lack empathy?

    I don’t think the study proves that last point, but it does seem as plausible as the conservative/fearful correlation that some people are taking away.

  37. #37 francis
    September 26, 2008

    Conservatives operate out of a fear of chaos and absence of order while political liberals operate out of a fear of emptiness, a new Northwestern University study finds.”Social scientists long have assumed that liberals are more rational and less fearful than conservatives, but we find that both groups view the world as a dangerous place,” says Dan McAdams, study co-author and professor of human development and psychology at Northwestern University. “It’s just that their fears emerge differently.”Like the Northwestern study, the preponderance of research finds that conservatives fear unchecked human impulses that challenge the status quo. What McAdams and Northwestern researcher Albaugh also find is an underlying, but different, fear that drives liberals as well.
    ———————————
    francis
    Link Building

  38. #38 David Marjanović
    September 27, 2008

    I specified great powers to exclude Sweden

    Sweden is just the upper end of the range seen in Europe. Compared to the USA, all of it (and Canada, and Australia, and NZ) is “liberal”. Kerry, both Clintons, and Obama would fit nicely into any European conservative party…

    Hawks’ objection about confounding religion and conservatism seems wrong to me, how religious are Swedes compared to the rest of the world?

    Well, look.

  39. #39 razib
    September 27, 2008

    Kerry, both Clintons, and Obama would fit nicely into any European conservative party…

    obama -> vlaams belang? national front? danish people’s party? swiss people’s party? austrian freedom party? italian national alliance? etc. also, the liberal american politicians you mention are all much further to left on some issues like abortion than most european conservative parties (e.g., CDU/CSU). the invariant difference between europe and the USA is that we’re far more minimalist in terms of economic intervention/safety net via the state. but on social issues it is more complex than the that. i think the democrats could arguably be a “liberal” party in europe; socially moderate-to-liberal and fiscally conservative-to-moderate. like the FDP in germany. the only european analog right now to the american republicans is probably vlams belang in terms of mixing both social and economic conservatism (i believe most of the other right populist parties like the danish people’s party don’t emphasize economics or are less neoliberal/free market).

  40. #40 Tod
    September 27, 2008

    David Marjanovic` I get the impression that vague non-christian beliefs like believing in “Some kind of spirit or life force” fits in with a concern with “benign enviromental causes maybe with a little feminism mixed in” as Austen Bramwell put it about WASPS. Sweden is big on ecology and feminism from what I know about it.