political psychology

Do Your Genes Make You a Democrat?

Photo: Shutterstock

Earlier this week in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall had an interesting column about new research on the connection between genes and political beliefs — particularly those connected to social conservatism. But he dives a bit too deep into the gene pool (sorry) in his attempts to explain why humans tend to be so politically close-minded.

Specifically, referencing the work of researchers Amanda Friesen at Indiana University and Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz at Rice, he writes: “If these [political] predispositions are, as Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz argue, to some degree genetically rooted, they may not lend themselves to rational debate and compromise.”

But we already know that political debates don’t lend themselves to rational debate and controversy — and we don’t need genetic explanations to understand why. There are all sorts of well-known psychological factors, from social influences to confirmation bias to motivated reasoning, that can help explain why we get locked into our political views and tend not to be open to changing them.

Sure, maybe, genes underlie these explanations and are therefore a factor. But how big a factor are we talking here, and are they more worth highlighting than all the other stuff that determines our political views? Wendy Johnson of the University of Edinburgh, another researcher cited by Edsall in the piece, wrote in an email:

That’s not something we said, that the presence of genetic influences on political attitudes suggests that they may not lend themselves to rational debate and compromise, and it’s not an appropriate conclusion to draw. Genetic influences on political attitudes would ‘nudge,’ as [Steven] Pinker puts it, not dictate, and everything that Edsall said about the constantly shifting sand (not just over time but also space and individual background) as to what sides of specific issues are ‘traditional’, liberal, or conservative is relevant.

The problem here is that genetics are such a sexy explanation — conservatism’s in your blood! — that they can drown out other, potentially more important factors. Edsall cites research from Johnson and her colleagues showing that among paternal twins, who share all of their DNA, there’s about a correlation of about .5 on political traits like their views on authoritarianism and religion, meaning their twinness can explain about half of their similar beliefs in politics (the odds dip dramatically with fraternal twins, who only share about half of their DNA).

Sure, that’s noteworthy, but it leaves a lot unexplained. And we’re still at a pretty nascent stage when it comes to our understanding of the connection between genes and behavior or beliefs, not to mention all the mediating factors along the way. It’s just too early to talk about genes causing political close-mindedness when we’re aware of so many other, more potentially relevant factors, especially given how easy it is to misunderstand or overhype genetic differences.