From Genes to Politics: How Biology Influcences the Way You Vote

5 01 2011

It might seem a leap too far, but bear with me, because I’m going to attempt to show that genes influence the way you vote. Let’s start at the end and work our way towards the beginning.

Your adopted political ideology strongly influences the way you vote. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which a liberal might vote for a conservative candidate, such as if the liberal candidate was an obvious dud (or the conservative candidate was a shining star), or if the conservative candidate happened to offer a better policies for the present environment (say, being a hawk in a time of war). But, all things being equal, self-identifying liberals vote for liberal candidates and parties.

However, your political ideology isn’t something you come to adopt from out of the blue. We’re not political blank slates. One of the greatest influences on what ideology you adopt is your worldview, which I loosely define as the implicit framework you use to make sense of the world around you.

Your worldview is both descriptive and prescriptive – it helps understand the way the world is, and it’s value-laden, so it helps you understand good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Many empirical and theoretical studies have shown that underneath our political attitudes lie (often unconscious) beliefs about the way the world is.

One popular theory linking politics with implicit worldview is offered by George Lakoff in his 1996 book, Moral Politics, where he suggests conservatives adopt a strict-father metaphorical outlook on the world (it’s a harsh world, people are generally bad by nature, you have to be disciplined, if you work hard you get the reward etc) and liberals adopt a nurturant-parent metaphorical outlook (the world is a beautiful place, people are generally good by nature, empathy, love and respect allow people to flourish, but sometimes circumstances conspire to cause us to behave badly).

Other studies show that if people believe the world to be meritocratic, they lean conservative. If they believe rewards and punishments are handed out more or less at random, they lean liberal (Mitchell & Tetlock, 2009).

But, your worldview also doesn’t spring from nought. How your worldview is formed is a complex matter, but you’re not born a worldview-blank slate. We are born with a bunch of psychological proclivities and predispositions, and these influence the way we interact with the world.

For example, if you’re high on the Openness scale of the Big Five personality traits, then you’re more likely to see the world as an interesting place, even if it’s sometimes confusing (Mondak, 2010). On the other hand, if you have a strong fear response, you’re more likely to see the world as a dangerous and threatening place.

Add in the influence of ideology, and you get a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Our naive impression of the way the world is, given our psychology, influences which ideologies are attractive, and these ideologies, in turn, have an influence on our worldview.

If you’re drawn towards conservatism, that might reinforce that the world is a dangerous place, and that people typically get what they deserve. If you’d drawn towards liberalism, that might reinforce that the world is a safe and interesting place, and that there’s vast inequalities that need to be righted.

But – and here’s the rub – your psychological predispositions and personality also don’t spring from nowhere. Many of the psychological aspects that influence worldview are strongly heritable, suggesting that genes play a significant role in influencing them. In fact, some psychologists consider personality to be one of the most biologically-entrenched things there are, as heritable as height.

From the top

So, to recap, this time from the beginning:

  • You’re born with your unique genetic makeup
  • This predisposes you to certain psychological traits
  • These traits influence the way you see the world, and how you construct your worldview
  • This worldview influences which of the political ideologies you’re exposed to appeal to you
  • This ideology further influences your worldview
  • And the political ideology influences your voting habits

In sum: genes influence the way you vote, if in a roundabout way.

There are a lot of steps between genes and politics, and there are a lot of environmental variables, but there’s a definite link, such that two individuals who grow up in very similar circumstances and live very similar lives, but have very different personalities, are more likely to develop different political attitudes than two identical twins who grow up separately (but within the same culture), and live in very different circumstances.

Worldview is the fulcrum

One final point of interest: worldview is a central part of this tale, literally and figuratively. I don’t think there are any genes that directly predispose towards conservatism or liberalism, as such. But there are genes that predispose towards a ‘dangerous world’ versus ‘wonderful world’ worldview, and these worldviews strongly influence which ideology is attractive.

Worldview is also manipulable. If you take a bunch of folk and prime them with ‘dangerous world’ imagery, they’ll consistently tilt towards conservative attitudes (Anson et al., 2009). What this suggests is our genes prime us to be cannily situational.

If conservatism represents a good strategy for coping with a dangerous world, then it’s clever that we lean to the right when confronted by evidence that the world is dangerous. It’s when the evidence is ambiguous that we start to see biology play its hand, and we see greater political disagreement.

The next step in all this is to explain how and why our genes got to be this way. I’ve written about that before, and I’ll add more as I continue to write it into my thesis.

So there you have it: genes -> psychology -> worldview -> political ideology -> voting habits. Wild.

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