Getting down to particulars, Alford and Hibbing found that people tended to be either “absolutist” (suspicious of groups that challenged the prevailing social order, seeking unity for their own particular group, desirous of strong leadership, unbendingly moral, willing to tolerate inequality and pessimistic about human nature) or “contextualist” (tolerant toward those challenging groups; less focused on rules; suspicious of hierarchies, certainties and strong leadership; and optimistic about human nature). As Alford and Hibbing put it, “All of these vexing perennial dichotomies are related cultural expressions of a deep-seated genetic divide,” and “the prospects for eliminating this divide are not promising.” In effect, part of the nation’s political polarization then and now was and is a result not of rationally argued philosophical differences but of genetics.
A new study, employing a database of 20,000 twins from various countries, populations and periods, has confirmed and elaborated on those findings. It announced what it called “definitive evidence that genetic heritability has some role in the formation of political ideology,” and it concluded that the influence of these genetic factors on ideology remained uniform over places and periods, while the influence of environmental factors varied. So not only was genetics a factor in our political attitudes, it was a constant factor.
This, however, was just the beginning. Other studies, conducted by James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego with a graduate student named Christopher Dawes, indicated that the likelihood of voting was partly inherited and traced it to an individual gene that helps the brain synthesize molecules needed to reabsorb serotonin, which is released by stress. The idea is that people who can handle stress better are more likely to withstand the stresses of political participation. A later study by the same researchers indicated that political intensity was also partly genetic, in this case traceable to a gene that enhances the flow to the brain of dopamine, which has been found to affect group attachments such as the attachment one might have to a political party.
Yet another study, by John Hibbing, used a $50 skin-conductance gauge, which measures moisture levels, to test people’s reactions to various stimuli and see if there were any political correlations. Hibbing hooked his subjects up to the machine and flashed them a total of 33 images, including three disturbing ones: a large spider on a frightened person’s face, an individual with a bloody face, and an open wound crawling with maggots. He and his associates also startled the subjects with a loud noise. They discovered that there was a correlation between the nature of the subjects’ reactions to the images and sounds and their political attitudes. The subjects who reacted most demonstratively were more likely to be “conservative,” and those who reacted less dramatically were more likely to be “liberal,” though the study didn’t use those terms. The researchers surmised that people who are more sensitive to frightening stimuli are also likely to be more sensitive to threats, as conservatives generally are, and those who are less sensitive to the stimuli are likely to be less sensitive to threats, as liberals generally are.
Still another study shows that people whose skin conductance bounces up and down rather than staying steady are more likely to become involved in politics. Another shows that people who are more easily stressed than others, as measured by their levels of the hormone cortisol, are less likely to participate in politics, including voting. Yet another physiological study comparing people who are stimulated by certain “hedonic” (pleasant) images to those who are stimulated by “aversive” (disgusting) images found it makes sense that “people more attentive and responsive to hedonic stimuli would support tax dollars being spent on the arts and national parks just as it makes sense that people more attentive and responsive to aversive stimuli would advocate policies promoting moral purity and harsh treatment for norm violators.” In short, liberals are attracted to hedonic images, conservatives to aversive ones.
In one of the more bizarre recent studies, one set of subjects perspired and another set smelled the sweat and indicated whether they found the particular odor appealing. It turned out conservatives were far more likely to find the odor of other conservatives appealing than they were the odor of liberals. But the same was not true of liberals. Rather, liberals were far more likely to be attracted to the voice of other liberals, while conservatives evinced no difference in aural appeal. The researchers surmised that there must be some biological attraction between conservatives and other conservatives and liberals and other liberals—olfactory in the first case, aural in the second. Moreover, conservatives are more likely than liberals to detect the odor of the steroid androstenone, which is associated with preserving social order. Bottom line: Conservatives may have a better sense of smell than liberals, though according to one new study, odor seems to be an important indicator of politics generally.
Other studies show that political orientations correlate with all sorts of things, among them “baseline neural structures,” “neural activation in response to unexpected stimuli,” “sensitivity to threat,” “the tendency to perceive threat in faces” and “sensitivity to disgust.” MRI studies of the brain have even shown that liberals and conservatives evaluate information using different neural pathways. Looking at brain chemistry, Fowler and Dawes have found that a gene affecting the amount of dopamine in our brains may give a person not only a nudge toward political participation but also a nudge toward liberalism. One scholar, Rose McDermott, is even working on the relationship of testosterone to political conflict.