The Biology of Our Political Beliefs

Have you ever wondered what is wrong with people who have political views so different from yours? Have you ever experienced frustration in discussing politics with friends who seem to stick to their ideology, irrespective of the evidence you might bring into the discussion? You are not alone, I guess, and you might find some interesting answers in a new prolific line of work in political science that connects political orientations to biological predispositions. A bunch of academics have indeed started tackling with some serious and scientific effort the question we always end up asking ourselves when we deplorably decide to talk politics with some people: what’s their problem?! In particular, this research tries to understand how genetic and biological components might be interacting with environmental factors in shaping our political beliefs. I was exposed to some of this research in a fascinating IAST (Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse) seminar held two years ago by Professor John Hibbing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I will present some of the main experiments and results.

The starting point is that people are remarkably different. Individual differences run deep and are grounded on biological predispositions that affect preferences and behaviour in a variety of settings. Political orientations should not be an exception to that analysis. As such, this line of research has been showing how interesting correlations emerge between different biological layers (psychological orientations, patterns of cognition, physiological responses, genetics) and political preferences, which points in the direction of a contribution of biological and genetic factors in shaping our political selves. As a good economics student, you know that correlation does not imply causation. But the amount of diverse evidence is worth considering and more effort should be put in attempting to identify precise underlying mechanisms. Allow me now to present a few examples from this literature.

How different people respond…differently:

In an experiment run by Carraro et al. (2011), participants were first classified according to liberal and conservative ideology through a questionnaire on socio-economic issues. They were then asked to perform the following task on a computer: The screen would show two pictures and, after a while, a dot would pop up randomly on one of the two pictures; the participants had to report as quickly as possible the location of the dot. Reasonably, the fact that a subject reported the dot’s location faster makes it more likely that the subject’s attention was already devoted to the picture on which the dot popped up. The two pictures were selected in order to always couple a “positive” picture (fruit bowls, happy people, etc.) with a “negative” one (dangerous animals, accidents, etc.). The results show that conservative people were relatively faster in spotting the dot when it appeared on a negative image, while liberals were relatively faster when it appeared on a positive one. This study is one of many which point out how political ideology is linked to selective attention processes, and finds that conservatives display a bigger attentional bias toward negative stimuli.

Is it in our brains?

This kind of results extends to a physiological level. A study by Oxley et al. (2008) has measured physiological responsiveness to visual stimuli through electrodermal activity (i.e. how much we sweat), and compared it among subjects with different political attitudes. The results showed that individuals with higher electrodermal response to threatening images consistently had more conservative views on socially protective policies. In particular, among the most physiologically arousing images, were the photos of a happy kid for liberals and that of a spider on a face for conservatives!

A paper by Kanai et al. (2011) went even further by studying biological differences in brain structure between people with different political views. What they found is, on one hand, a correlation between the volume of grey matter in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and liberal ideology; and, on the other hand, a correlation between the volume of grey matter in the right Amygdala and conservative ideology. The Amygdala has a role in processing memory and emotional reactions and its right hemisphere has been associated with negative emotions and fear-inducing stimuli. The ACC instead seems to be consistently activated by tasks involving error detection and conflict resolution. Again, although causality is hard to claim from such correlations, this study lines up with several others in suggesting a link between brain structure, cognitive patterns, and political attitudes.

The last example concerns an olfactory experiment run by McDermott et al. (2014). In the experiment, individuals were asked to rate body odours of unknown people who defined themselves as either strong liberals or strong conservatives. The body odours were collected through gauze pads that were kept under the arm for 24 hours. Participants who were asked to smell and rate the odours were also asked to report their political ideology. Quite astonishingly, both conservatives and liberals found the body odours of unknown individuals who shared their political orientation significantly more attractive than those of individuals with opposite ideology!

A new approach to understand political differences

As you might know from personal experience, conflicting political views are difficult to smooth out. The papers that I have mentioned are part of a body of research that suggests that this is because our political orientations are grounded on some biological predispositions. As a caveat, let me stress that by positing the existence of such biological components, this research does not deny the huge impact that the social environment has on the evolution of our political personalities; nor the fact that once we acknowledge their existence, we could be able to offset these predispositions.

I find this line of work very interesting. Moreover, the conclusion is, I believe, powerful. We don’t disagree on politics just because some of us are stupid or misinformed. We do it because we pay attention to different things; we see and smell them differently; we use different cognitive processes; we basically experience the world differently. And, as highlighted by Professor Hibbing in the seminar, recognizing that this is the case and learning how deeply rooted our political beliefs are can help us reduce hostility and increase tolerance, thus benefiting our society.

By Alberto Grillo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s