The past few decades have seen a wave of research challenging the notion that we are the conscious authors of our actions. Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that brain activity in the motor cortex can be detected 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. More recently, recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. Simply stated, we do not have the freedom we think we have.
The notion that there are aspects of our lives that are totally under our control is an illusion. And this illusion extends to political affiliation.
We are proud of our political beliefs. We tend to think they’re the result of some rational responses to the world around us, based on our experience and careful consideration of facts. But a growing body of evidence suggests that a combination of genes and early experiences may predispose people to perceive and respond to political issues in certain ways. Although many of the studies linking biology to politics remain controversial (and many have not been replicated), these studies might alter how people think about their own and others’ political attitudes.
In 1986, for example, Nicholas Martin and his colleagues published a study suggesting that genes could exert a pull on attitudes concerning topics such as abortion, immigration, and the death penalty. Over the years, researchers have begun exploring candidate genes. Recently, genes involved with the olfactory system and the neurotransmitters glutamate, dopamine and serotonin have been linked to behaviors such as voter turnout and ideology.
But if other complex behaviors and traits are any indication, linking specific genes to political behaviors is not going to be simple. And moreover, it is unlikely that a small number of genes can push someone towards being a liberal activist, a social conservative, or a libertarian. Even for traits known to have a very large genetic component – e.g., height – the scientific research points to the influence of thousands of genes. An easier approach is to investigate the pathways that might connect genes with political behaviors and attitudes.
Some of the most interesting research in this field has originated from John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 2008, Hibbing published a study in the journal Science finding that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. Specifically, Hibbing found that political partisans on the left and the right differ significantly in their bodily responses to threatening stimuli. 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.
More recently, Hibbing and his colleagues fitted liberals and conservatives with eye-tracking devices and showed them a series of images containing pictures that were either “appetitive” (showing something happy or positive) or “aversive” (showing something threatening or disgusting). The devices permitted Hibbing to measure where the participants first fixed their gaze and how long they tended to dwell on different images.
The results of this study were clear and compelling: “compared with individuals on the political left, individuals on the right direct more of their attention to the aversive despite displaying greater physiological responsiveness to those stimuli.” This, according to Hibbing, suggests a different interpretation of those holding right-of-center political orientations.
It appears individuals on the political right are not so much “fearful” and “vulnerable” as attuned and attentive to the aversive in life. This responsiveness and attentiveness, in turn, is consistent with the fact that right-of-centre policy positions are often designed to protect society from out-group threats (e.g. by supporting increased defence spending and opposing immigration) and in-group norm violators (e.g. by supporting traditional values and stern penalties for criminal behaviour).
In one of his letters to John Adams, dated June 27, 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time . . . [T]he terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” Thomas Jefferson did not have access to today’s scientific machinery, such as eye tracker devices and skin conductance sensors. And yet, these very technologies are now being used to reaffirm his insight. Our political differences reflect much more than mere differences of opinion. Rather, as John Alford, an associate professor of political science at Rice University, has said, “It is our biology, and not always reason or the careful consideration of facts, that predisposes us to see and understand the world in different ways.”
The key to getting along politically, therefore, may not lie in the ability of one side to see the error of its ways, but rather in the ability of each side to see that the other is different, not just politically, but physically. From genes to hormones, biology may help shape political behavior.