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Genes and political attitudes

- September 26, 2008

The LA Times “tells us today”:http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-politics19-2008sep19,0,6283617.story about political science research suggesting that your genes are what make you a conservative or liberal.

bq. Die-hard liberals and conservatives aren’t made; they’re born. It’s literally in their DNA. That’s the implication of a study by a group of researchers who wanted to see if there was a biological basis for people’s political attitudes. They found to their surprise that opinions on such contentious subjects as gun control, pacifism and capital punishment are strongly associated with physiological traits that are probably present at birth.

Or maybe not. Aaron Wiener at the _Washington Independent_ decided to do a “bit of research”:http://washingtonindependent.com/6598/ideology-in-your-dna-not-quite into this story’s background.

bq. Intrigued, I called the study’s head researcher, Douglas Oxley of the University of Nebraska, to see if he agreed with this conclusion.

bq. “In some ways [the study has] been misinterpreted,” said Oxley. He said that his study didn’t find a link between DNA and political leanings. “We could have things happen to us in the womb or later in life that could cause” physiological and ideological differences. The study, released yesterday, tested the physiological responses of 46 participants to various threatening images, like bloody faces. It found that people who self-identified as “in favor of socially protective policies” responded much more strongly to the stimuli than people who held more liberal views on such issues as welfare, abortion, immigration, gay rights and school prayer.

bq. The researchers concluded that people of different ideological persuasions have divergent physiological reactions, and that people with socially conservative views tend to be more shocked by potentially threatening stimuli. “Some people have said that we’re calling conservatives ‘frightened’ or something along those lines,” Oxley said. “And we’re not. All we’re suggesting is that there’s a physiological difference between people who hold one set of political beliefs and people who hold another set of political beliefs.”

This won’t be surprising to anyone who’s talked to journalists about their research – my batting average so far for accurate representations of what I told ’em is about 50% (and that’s a lot higher than many other political scientists). Journalists frequently come to a story with their own preconceived framing of what you _should_ be saying, and can be pretty stubborn about sticking to this framing, even when it’s completely at odds with what you tell them. I suspect that this is especially likely to be a problem for studies like this, since journalists have learned that cod-evolutionary psychology stories about how genes cause this, that and the other usually sell to their editors – hence the desire to shoehorn this research into a finding about genetics, even when the authors weren’t talking about genes at all.