The Biology of Politics: Is It For Real?

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Most Americans have been actively engaged in the frustrating sport of arguing about politics, which often leads to the common refrain; "You just don't get it!" So this made me wonder why people who seem to have similar life experiences can end up with such dramatically different personal philosophies -- philosophies that ultimately affect their political views and voting behavior. Apparently, I am not the only one to wonder about such things, because a paper was just published in Science that investigates this phenomenon. According to this paper, people who are easily startled by threatening images or loud sounds are more likely to espouse protectionist political views than those who are more relaxed.

A team of researchers led by John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, studied the physiological responses of people with strongly-held political views and found that those who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend be more defensive on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. In contrast, people who are less sensitive to potential threats likewise tend to be predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

"I was quite struck watching the conventions by the different tones," said Hibbing about the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. "The Republicans are waving placards saying, 'country first.' Democrats are not saying, 'country last,' but there is a concern that is visceral in one group but not another."

To do this research, Hibbing and his colleagues recruited 46 white partisan Republicans and Democrats from a pool of 1310 people in Nebraska whom they initially contacted by telephone. The volunteers were surveyed regarding their views on a variety of topics, including the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, pacifism and school prayer. All the questions were designed to test how strongly people needed to guard against various internal and external threats. None focused on economic issues.

Two months later, the volunteers were invited into the lab and were hooked up to devices that measure several autonomic physiological responses that are linked to threat response. These autonomic responses are produced by the sympathetic nervous system, which controls many of the body's "fight or flight" responses. Sympathetic nervous system responses cannot be controlled by conscious thought.

The first response the team measured was moisture on the skin. According to previous studies cited by the authors, skin conductance "has been closely linked with the psychological concepts of emotion, arousal, and attention" and "provides relatively direct and undiluted representation of sympathetic activity".

In this experiment, a person who feels a threat produces more skin moisture, which is measured as changes to the electrical conductance of the skin. After being hooked up to the skin conductance monitor, the volunteers were then showed 33 images, including a very large spider on the face of a terrified person, a person whose face had been bloodied, and an open wound filled with maggots. (As an arachnophobe, the spider image would absolutely terrify me). The researchers then compared their volunteers' reactions to the threatening images with their responses to three non-threatening images; a happy child, a bowl of fruit and a bunny (figure 1);

DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627 [larger view].

According to these data, the researchers found that the volunteers who held conservative political views were more likely to react to the threatening images through increased skin conductance.

The other physiological response that the team measured was the orbicularis
oculi startle blink response, an involuntary response to a startling noise. Harder blinks (higher blink amplitudes) are indicative of a heightened "fear state." In this series of experiments, the threatening stimulus was a loud, standardized level of white noise that the volunteers heard through headphones at seven unexpected moments while they were looking at a computer screen containing a focus point (figure 2);

DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627 [larger view].

The researchers noted that startle blink responses can become habituated, however, despite this, they still found that the tendency for high blink amplitudes to correlate with respondents that supported protective political policies was consistent across the study and was also apparent for the overall means (figure 3);

While reporting that their data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes, these data do not provide firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes that underlie these reactions. However, they think that there is a biological relationship to political views.

"There is some sort of broad left-right orientation that pervades not only our politics, but politics across the world and across time," mentioned co-author John R. Alford, who is a political scientist at Rice University. "This variation could have biological underpinnings."

However, from what I saw in this study, the weight of those biological underpinnings are open to question, debate and further study. For example, this study did not take age, race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status into consideration. The researchers also relied on a very small group of nearly exclusively white, politically active people, and further, they did not conduct any follow-up regarding how the volunteers percieved the "threatening" images to determine if they did find them to be so.

"I don't think that biology is destiny, but for the general public, I want people to believe that it's something," Alford concurs. "Right now it's seen as nothing. It's given zero weight."

Alford has a point: Genetics play a significant role in human behavior, but I don't think his point should override the real question; just how important and how pervasive is the role of genetics in predicting human behavior? This is a topic that has triggered vigorous debate for at least one century (i. e.; the "nature versus nurture" debate), and the question does not appear to be anywhere close to being resolved. Hopefully, this study will inspire more rigorous research into this interesting topic.


D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627.

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Unfortunately although conservativism is recessive the genes for it obviously are not.

Interesting. I can't say that the broad outline of the results surprises me that much(though the neatness of the results is impressive). I would be very interested to see further study, with people chosen from various backgrounds, to see whether policy support could be driven in an opposite manner in certain instances.

For example, I grew up in a moderately wealthy, fairly liberal northeastern suburb. Other than everybody's grandparents having fought in WWII, there was no real military history in any of the families I knew. The area was far too densely settled for any sort of hunting, and quiet enough that self-defense didn't have anybody worked up. Under these circumstances my(anecdotal) impression was that a generally fearful outlook made one pro gun control; because of a fear of guns and gun accidents, rather than anti gun control, out of fear of having one's defensive capabilities removed. I'd love to see if this would be borne out by application of these methods to this population.

It would also be interesting to see if one could examine certain ambiguous groups more closely. Are isolationists hard to startle, content to let the world go its own way, or easy to startle; but terrified by the risks of foreign engagement?

For example, this study did not take age, race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status into consideration.

I should probably read the study first, but this is a warning sign of a dodgy correlation. Especially with n=46: wouldn't take too much confounding to give a spurious result.

Erm, actually they did. They did a regression for age, income, gender and education.

Race was irrelevant here because all but one of the volunteers was white.

woops! i R a spaz;

Uncontrolled, bivariate results have the potential to mislead. We therefore regressed each participant's summary level of support for socially protective political policies on changes in skin conductance as well as on four sociodemographic variables commonly used as predictors of political attitudes: gender, age, income, and education (race and ethnicity were not controlled because all but one participant was self-identified as white and non-Hispanic).

"Study Shows that Liberals do not React to Clear Threats"

In a recent study researchers discovered that, when shown threatening images, self-identified Liberals did not react in a typical manner...

'It is very interesting,' said the lead researcher, 'but those who dismiss the need for protective politics seems, at a base level, unable to recognize a clear threat..."

All depends upon the slant, doesn't it?