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The Liberal Mind vs the Conservative Mind -- Genetic?

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Earlier today, I referred to McCain as having a "reptilian mind." I admit that I wasn't being literal... just sort of impressionistic. However, some interesting new data has come my way since then and I'd like to share it with you -- the literal, non-impressionistic stuff.

A fascinating new study from the British weekly scientific magazine, New Scientist brings up the question on its front cover, "Two Tribes: Are Your Genes Liberal or Conservative?" It delves into the serious scientific research on the formation of political opinions. My attention was immediately focused on several conclusions which I had been noticing since my student days when I was president of the freshman class at college and of the school's Young Democrats:

"...a rather unflattering view of conservatives emerges from the studies. They are portrayed as dogmatic, routine-loving individuals, while liberals come across as free-spirited and open-minded folk."

The story suggests that it's probably pointless to try to change most people's minds about politics. "According to an emerging idea, political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. 'These views are deep-seated and built into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion,' says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas... [O]pinions on a long list of issues, from religion in schools to nuclear power and gay rights, have a substantial genetic component. The decision to vote rather than stay at home on election day may also be linked to genes. Neuroscientists have also got in on the act, showing that liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain activity."

In 2003, John Jost, a psychologist at New York University, and colleagues surveyed 88 studies, involving more than 20,000 people in 12 countries, that looked for a correlation between personality traits and political orientation (American Psychologist, vol 61, p 651). Some traits are obviously going to be linked to politics, such as xenophobia being connected with the far right. However, Jost uncovered many more intriguing connections. People who scored highly on a scale measuring fear of death, for example, were almost four times more likely to hold conservative views. Dogmatic types were also more conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences tended to be liberals. Jost's review also noted research showing that conservatives prefer simple and unambiguous paintings, poems and songs.

...A much stronger link exists between political orientation and openness, which psychologists define as including traits such as an ability to accept new ideas, a tolerance for ambiguity and an interest in different cultures. When these traits are combined, people with high openness scores turn out to be almost twice as likely to be liberals.

Combine the genetic influences on personality with the political tendencies of different personality types, and the idea that genetics shapes political tendencies seems very plausible indeed. All of the big five personality traits are highly heritable (Journal of Research in Personality, vol 32, p 431), with several studies suggesting that around half of the variation in openness scores is a result of genetic differences. Some traits that are linked to openness, such as being sociable, are also known to be influenced by the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. And levels of these chemicals are controlled in part by genes. So while there isn't a gene for liking hippies, there is probably a set of genes that influences openness, which in turn may influence political orientation.

This is cross-posted from DownWithTyranny, where the full story, somewhat longer, is available, along with some lovely illustrative artwork.