DNA Explains Political Preference, New Research Claims

Share Article

A new article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published by Cambridge University Press, answers why the distance between conservative and liberal viewpoints seems so hard to bridge.

Anyone who has ever wondered why the gulf between conservative and liberal views seems so unbridgeable might find some answers in the latest issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In a fascinating article, Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology, three political scientists argue that our political bias is frequently not a conscious choice nor the result of our upbringing, but a product of predispositions rooted in our psychology and even our biology.

Drawing on a growing body of research and on their own experiments, John Hibbing and Kevin Smith from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and John Alford from Rice University, Texas, make the claim that personality, psychology, physiology, and genetics each play an important role in whether individuals will turn out to have conservative or liberal leanings.

Using experiments in which people were shown nice or nasty images or asked to judge facial expressions, the authors found that participants of a conservative bent reacted faster and spent longer engaging with negative images than testees who defined themselves as liberals. The unsavory images included spiders, burning houses, and a maggot-infested wound, and each subject’s reactions were gauged by monitoring devices such as eye trackers, which measure involuntary responses.

Hibbing writes:

“The logic for our approach is straightforward. Life is about encounters: sights, sounds, smells, imaginings, objects, and people, and the systems employed to sense, process, formulate, and execute a response to stimuli are psychological and physiological. Even if a stimulus is identical, one individual will sense, process, and respond to it differently than another.

“We reason that this variation is likely to correlate with the political positions endorsed by each individual. Across research methods, samples, and countries, conservatives have been found to be quicker to focus on the negative, to spend longer looking at the negative, and to be more distracted by the negative.”

This ’negativity bias’ could explain why typical conservatives traits are preference for stability and order, which keep in check potentially threatening change, while liberals are more likely to embrace innovation and reform and the uncertainty and potential chaos they may bring.

Hibbing includes a warning against the temptation to base value judgements on the findings:

“Identifying differences across ideological groups is not tantamount to declaring one ideology superior to another.” What it does show, he concludes, is that “politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA.”

His peers resoundingly agree: the Open Commentary that follows his paper sees 23 out of 26 scholars, or groups of scholars, concurring with the general thesis. The idea has caught the attention of commentators also, with coverage on the BBC and science and political journalist Chris Mooney writing in Mother Jones:

“It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics—upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really change.”

The article has been published in the June 2014 issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), published bimonthly by Cambridge University Press. For the full article, go to http://journals.cambridge.org/hibbing.


For further information, please contact:
Leslie Reed
National News Editor
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Office of University Communications
402.677.0853 mobile
402.472-2059 office

About Behavioral and Brain Sciences:

Behavioral and Brain Sciences is the internationally renowned journal with the innovative format known as Open Peer Commentary. Particularly significant and controversial pieces of work are published from researchers in any area of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral biology or cognitive science, together with 10-25 commentaries on each article from specialists within and across these disciplines, plus the author's response to them. The result is a fascinating and unique forum for the communication, criticism, stimulation, and particularly the unification of research in behavioral and brain sciences from molecular neurobiology to artificial intelligence and the philosophy of the mind.

For further information, go to: http://journals.cambridge.org/bbs.

About Cambridge Journals Online:

Cambridge Journals publishes over 340 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide spread of subject areas, and all Cambridge Journals are available in digital versions back to the first issue. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today.

For further information, go to: http://journals.cambridge.org.

About Cambridge University Press:

Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 50,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 340 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching, and bible publishing. Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.

For further information, go to http://www.cambridge.org.

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Susan Soule
Visit website