Your politics are in your genes

This post is part of an ongoing series concerning the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.

It would be silly to think of newborn babies’ brains as being a blank slate. The preponderance of biological research has shown that differences in our genes play a large role in our personality. But certainly our political opinions are formed some time after we’re born, since we need some actual political information before we can develop political attitudes, right?

Well, kinda.

Numerous studies have shown that monozygotic (identical) twins are more likely than dizygotic (fraternal) twins to hold similar political opinions and exhibit similar political behaviors, showing that our genes play a role in determining what our political opinions are, how strongly we hold them and even whether or not we decide to vote.

Twins via Shutterstock.

Twins via Shutterstock.

What’s important to note, as is the case with all twin studies, is that comparing identical to fraternal twins controls for the “shared household” objection. It’s natural to assume that twins, or siblings, will share political attitudes because they grow up in the same house in the same geographic area with the same parents telling them what to think. But when identical twins, with matching genes, are more alike than fraternal twins, who only share 50% of each others’ genes, the difference between the two can be attributed to genetic difference.

So, while this is not to say that our political opinions are 100% set when we’re born, nature provides a robust “first draft,” or cognitive structure, which we use to process information and which helps construct our political attitudes as we mature. It is perhaps for this reason that studies examining this phenomenon have consistently found that genes play a significant role in the ideologies we hold, but not the parties we identify with. The former is internal and value-based; the latter is an external and artificial construction – far more prone to environmental manipulation.

So while there isn’t a “Democrat Gene” or a “Republican Gene,” there are genes for which variations can predispose someone to be more liberal or conservative.

For example, those who are predisposed to greater levels of fear and risk-aversion are more likely to be conservative, even to the point of exhibiting varying physical responses in laboratory settings. Furthermore, it has been shown that conservatives have a larger amygdala than liberals, which could explain why these differences are found (the amygdala is active during states of fear and anxiety).

Furthermore, even though a genetic link for partisan affiliation itself has not been established, a link between partisanship itself (in either direction) and the propensity to engage in collective action has.

Over the course of primate evolution, it has become evolutionarily advantageous to engage in collective action. I help you protect your stuff (instead of killing you and taking it), with the expectation that you will do the same for me down the road. In entering into this agreement, we are both able to acquire more, reduce risk and, as a result, have more children and prosper. In this way, selective pressure to act collectively arose over time, creating a human race that is, at its core, social.

But inherent differences in our propensity to act collectively exist, and these differences can be borne out in strength of partisan affiliation (an exercise in collective action). Those who are more likely to donate money or volunteer for a political campaign are, because they are predisposed to in-group behavior, more likely to cooperate for the purpose of solving other collective action problems.

As we’ll see, there are plenty of other environmental factors that contribute to our attitudes and decisions. But no conversation about behavior can start at anywhere other than a genetic level. Having established that genes play a significant role in political behavior, we can move on to environmental factors in subsequent posts.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Sweetie

    Yet so many “progressives” and “liberals” seem to have no problem simultaneously endorsing Obama’s kingly power of assassination by dictate (coupled with the murder of a 16 year old kid) and policy stances that are allegedly based on empathy, intelligence, and fairness. They also don’t seem to mind the growth of the police state and the refusal to prosecute elite criminals—but took issue with both when Bush was in office.

    Conservative and liberal don’t really exist. They’re just two labels on the same opportunism. The real dichotomy is rationality and irrationalist.

  • medium lebowski

    I hope they controlled for this: What if I’m a fraternal twin boy, and my twin brother is the handsome one that everyone is drawn to, and I always get the short end of things. Might resentment tend to drive me to adopt a path and outlook contrary to my brother’s?

  • Rozzer

    I understand only too well the delicious attraction of ideas that make political (or any other) views hinge on inheritance. But any serious person must agree that the linking of political behavior to genes is a very, very new endeavor and as yet not proven by the generations of scientific sifting and rethinking necessary for the general acceptance of any such association. I come from a family in which no one, among dozens and dozens of individuals over generations and generations, has been a Republican at any time in their lives. All without exception have been and are now liberal Democrats. Their natural hair colors differ, as do their eyes, as do their emotional makeups and their physical sizes and attributes. But every single person in our family, over now more than a century, has rejected political selfishness and social superiority of any kind, endorsing solely and only programs, politicians and parties whose aim is the good of all. I find it hard to believe that a group so diverse in all other ways have their politics dictated by genetic inheritance.

  • Naja pallida

    That’s an easy one. Mustard.

  • Naja pallida

    Definitely makes for some tense family reunions. Especially when my grandfather starts ranting about the French. :)

  • Naja pallida

    It is truly fascinating how twins, being so alike genetically, and typically raised under the same circumstances, can often turn out so different. Twins seem to be pretty common in my family as well, and there are some, like my great grandmother and her sister, who are completely different in almost every aspect of their personality. You’d probably not even think they were identical twins if they didn’t look so alike. But my uncles, they’re almost exactly the same in their likes and dislikes, and many of their mannerisms. Then, I look at myself and my siblings – and we have next to nothing in common. We don’t even share tastes in music or food. Despite being raised in the same household, by the same parents.

    What it tells me is that there are an infinite number of variables that go into making someone who they are, some of them are genetic, some of them are taught – willingly or not, some of them are chosen. We mix and match concepts throughout our lives, blending with what is already in our genetics, forming a more perfect version of ourselves with every new bit of information that comes to us.

  • Naja pallida

    I don’t know, I could make a pretty cogent case with anecdotal evidence that conservatism (at least in its current American incarnation) necessitates some kind of prefrontal cortex dysfunction. Whether that translates to an actual genetic abnormality, I don’t know, but my beagle seems to have more capacity for reason than current Republicans in Congress.

  • Loto

    the case of the scientist investigating the “serial killer” gene, only
    to find out he had it himself, but hasn’t exhibited any such behavioral
    traits. Education and upbringing (or rebelling against that upbringing, as the case may be) probably make more of a difference in one’s political
    leanings than genetics”

    I wouldn’t say “more”. The serial killer example isn’t so good, either. It has more to do with a biological dysfunction (lack of frontal lobe activity) than anything to do with nurture.

  • Loto

    My husband is an identical twin. His brother is a conservative and typically heterosexual. He and his wife are evangelicals. My husband is the more feminine of the two by far, and much less conservative. Ironically, his brother is the creative one, although not very innovative. My husband is not very creative. They have similar mannerisms, but many dissimilarities. My husband is nervous like his mother and his brother is very laid back like his father. Both of them refuse to exercise, so that is one similarity. They also both have limited tastes when it comes to food. They aren’t adventurous eaters. Frankly, my sister and I are about as similar (besides looks) as they are.

  • He wasn’t entire all there in his advanced age and thought I was the blonde next to me, starting massaging my elbow secretly from behind. Was very weird. But a great story, in retrospect :)

  • Same here.

  • Jafafa Hots

    Gee. My father is a right-wing republican, my mom was a republican, and all of their siblings and parents are right-wing rednecks.

    I and my siblings are all liberal to extreme liberal.

    Does this mean I need to ask my Mom some tough questions?

    Seriously though – this is evolutionary sociology – a field that, unlike real evolutionary theory, is mostly total bullshit.
    Evolutionary sociology has been used in such dubious ways as to claim that women evolved to like the color pink more than men, among other BS.

  • That was my reaction, too.

  • There was a “Through the Wormhole” episode (the Science channel show with Morgan Freeman) where one segment covered exactly this fellow’s situation. (I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy.)

    What was fascinating is he had the scan done because there was Alzheimer’s in his family and he wanted to screen everyone he could. But he’d also been doing scans of certified psychopaths, trying to find common patterns. One day, he was looking through the scans and thought he’d gotten them mixed up — and then realized he himself had the exact same brain pattern as the psychopaths he was studying.

    When he told his family and friends about this, their reaction was (according to him) nonplussed. “Of course you’re a psycho, we’ve all always known that. It’s just that you’re one of the nice ones.” Apparently it led to a bit of an epiphany of self-examination, in that he recognized he did have many of the personality traits common to psychopathy — being driven, ambitious, controlling, manipulative. The only real answer he could come up with as to why he didn’t turn into a serial killer is he had a pretty good, non-abusive, non-traumatic childhood.

    Anyway, I think both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ play big parts in how people turn out as adults.

  • Jon Green

    Precisely. Predisposition is no guarantee of behavior…it just means that certain behaviors are more likely. It’s statistical significance, it isn’t determinism. This will come up in future posts, but there are plenty of environmental factors that have significant influence as well.

  • Naja pallida

    I think there are far too many outliers to treat this as something definitive. Predisposition to certain traits does not mean those traits will manifest in behavior. Human beings are a lot more complex than that. Consider the case of the scientist investigating the “serial killer” gene, only to find out he had it himself, but hasn’t exhibited any such behavioral traits. Education and upbringing (or rebelling against that upbringing, as the case may be) probably make more of a difference in one’s political leanings than genetics. Though, it’s mildly interesting to think that John Boehner is just genetically predisposed to being a useless douche bag.

  • Well, in my case it was obvious by age 1. A picture taken by my Dad on the lawn, shows me wearing a diapher standing in second position and another in barre.

  • If that was on a plane I hope you had a barf bag.

  • This is like the old Mayonnaise vs Miracle Whip dichotomy.

  • Violettefemme

    I too am a liberal with a con parent (my father died when I was a baby, so just my mother’s influence). The funny thing is, growing up my mother was all about championing the underdog, etc etc, and never shut up about how SHE is the champion of the underdog…once I started paying attention to politics and being involved, in my 30s, the truth became clear…and I never cease to wonder how I came from this woman, was raised by her…and turned out as I have. Thank the powers that be for it, but how the heck did that happen? My sister and brother are conz as well. Even their teen children are conz! I’m the black sheep in pretty much every way, I guess no one should be surprised about this lol.

  • Naja pallida

    I’m in the same boat. No one in my family agrees on much of anything politically. From grandparents to siblings, we’re each in a pretty different spectrum.

  • UncleBucky

    Well, it’s nurture (your own, I guess) transcending both nature and nurture! ? :(

  • UncleBucky

    Yikes, maybe when Strom was younger, he would have “done stuff” but then excused himself and blamed his hormones or whatever later… Ewwwww.

  • UncleBucky

    Well, it seems to me that those who cannot abide ambiguity or complexity will react predicably in their politics. Those who are confused or confounded by people who different than them, same way. That is, some people are less averse to strangers whilst others repel strangers immediately.

    It’s probably a combination of nature and nurture, but if you grow up in a family, your nature is supported by your nurture. Conversely, I suppose, one’s nurture can help one transcend a conservative or slow to warm up nature, eh? :(

  • Ew.

  • milli2

    I am a raging liberal and my brother is a Rush Limbaugh-is-a-saint-and-prophet-conservative. My other brother doesn’t give a crap about either party.

  • I’ll have to tell you about the time Strom Thurmond copped a feel on me (at me?) thinking I was the blonde woman to my left.

  • You’re a mutant :)

  • How to explain I am a liberal with conservative parents and children

  • nicho

    As long as I don’t have politicians in my jeans.

  • perljammer

    Hmm. May be evidence of a genetic predisposition for Western-style pants. What does your twin wear?

  • Indigo

    My jeans are Wranglers.

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