The Human Nature for Asymmetric Politics

Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation,” by Sukhwinder Shergill et al, Science, 11 July 2003, Vol 301, Vol. 301 p 187, http://hera.ucl.ac.uk/sml/publications/papers/SheBayFriWol03.pdf.

“Could Political Attitudes Be Shaped by Evolution Working Through Genes?,” by John Alford and John Hibbing, Tidsskriftet Politik, August 2006.

Two articles, an older one from Science and a new one from this month by John Hibbing, a leader in genetic factors in political behavior. The Hibbing article is essentially a re-presentation of his earlier findings that political beliefs are heritable, with the proviso that political beliefs do not correlate with personality, or as Hibbing and his co-writer John R. Alford say:

Political temperament is not indicated by an individual’s reactions to a social situation but rather is indicated by preferences for the organization of the social interactions occurring within the group whether the individual is directly involved or not. This is why it is more difficult to devise experiments to test for political temperament than it is to test for social temperament. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 13)

The other article is only one page, and short enough for all of its notes to be presented above the fold:

Across the six pairs, there was a significant (F1,5 =12.1, P = 0.05) average increase of 3.2 N over the eight turns corresponding to a 38% mean escalation on each turn. The increase was also significant (P= 0.05) within every pair of participants. Thus, force escalation occurs rapidly even under instructions designed to achieve parity. (Shergill 2003 187).

This observation suggests that self-generated forces are perceived as weaker than externally generated forces of the same magnitude. (Shergill 2003 187).

When the force was generated via the joystick, the reproduced force matched the original force much more accurately [Fig. 1B (0)]. (Shergill 2003 187).


This vision of all humans possessing a relatively standard, genetically-shaped, Swiss-Army Knife collection of behavioral modules designed for successful preservation of offspring and kin in hunter-gatherer life of the Pleistocene (but often oddly out of place in modern mass society) is a caricature of evolutionary psychology. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 2)

Recent studies unveil evidence of positive genetic selection (in behaviorally relevant genes) within the last 8-12,000 years—approximately the time when agriculture was developed in the fertile crescent of southwest Asia and only slightly later in China and then southern Europe (see Voight et al. 2006; Rockman et al. 2005). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 3)

Emotions, phobias, and perceptions of beauty and color all seem to be remarkably similar across all cultures (Brown 1991). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 5)

Moreover, it ignores the fact that computer simulations demonstrate the advantages of conspecifics with distinct behavioral tendencies such as cooperator and defector (Hammond 2000) or hero and communitarian (Smirnov et al. 2006). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 5)

Though an individual’s genetic code remains essentially constant throughout a lifetime, genes are activated (expressed) in some circumstances but not others and, due to complex interactions of numerous genes (and their respective environmental touchstones) the same environmental stimulus will not always activate a given gene. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 7)

Like most things in the world, genes work probabilistically, yet many unfamiliar with genetics seem to believe that genes operate in a deterministic fashion, that all genetic alleles have a penetrance of 1.0 and no variation in expressivity. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 7)

Caspi found that those with the short version of 5-HTT are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions such as whether or not they experienced an abusive childhood. Individuals with short alleles were only marginally more depressed overall but they were substantially less resilient in the face of unfavorable environmental conditions. The combination of one or two short alleles and an abusive childhood rendered depression quite likely (though still far from a certainty). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 8-9)

The interaction of genetics and the environment (GxE) increases the odds of a certain behavioral phenotype being manifested. The natural science community has long recognized that nature and nurture work together, but in the social sciences, scholars still try to construct an adversarial relationship. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 9)

Of course, people differ in all sorts of ways, not just with regard to political orientations. It is useful to divide these differences into personal temperament, social temperament and political temperament. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 12)

Indeed, scholars have often believed there to be conservative (McCloskey, 1958) or authoritarian (Adorno et al. 1950; Altemeyer 1981; 1996) personalities (see also Bouchard 1997; Bouchard and Loehlin 2001) and we also initially assumed personality was the link connecting genes and politics, as is apparent in the following quote: “Genes influence people’s outlooks and personalities, and it is these broad features that then predispose individuals toward suites of specific attitudes” (Alford, Funk, and Hibbing 2005: 164). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 14)

Further probing casts doubt on the notion that politics is purely a byproduct of personality. As mentioned above, the five central aspects of personality have been found to be strongly heritable. Specifically, a large-scale meta-analysis places the heritability coefficients at .42 for agreeableness, .46 for conscientiousness, .49 for neuroticism, .53 for extraversion, and .54 for openness (computed from Bouchard and McGue 2003: 23). Interestingly, however, the central components of personality are largely unrelated to political views (liberal versus conservative). Four of these five relationships fail to achieve statistical significance. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 14-15)

Political orientation (liberal or conservative) is not a significant predictor of social behavior as measured in economic game play (Fehr et al. 2002). (Alford and Hibbing 2006 15)

Given that humans lived in small-scale social units for hundreds of thousands of years, genes relating to personal and social sensitivities are probably highly conserved, but the genes pertinent specifically to life in large-scale social units—that is, those connected to preferences for the organization and conduct of mass-level group life—may be among those giving evidence of relatively recent positive selection. Formulating norms, rules, statutes, and constitutions with no known individual in mind is quite different than interacting with well-known individuals in a single small band.(Alford and Hibbing 2006 16)

The point is that, though political ideologies such as liberal and conservative may be fairly independent of the genes that have been connected to personal temperament, other important political variables such as the tendency to participate in the pushing and shoving of the political arena are likely to be strongly related to genes such as DRD4 and 5-HTT. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 16-17)

Fixed diversity (that is, different types) in groups often has the advantage over universal flexibility. Different personalities and political temperaments may similarly make for stronger groups. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 17)

If, however, orientation is partially genetic and only partially environmental, a preferable way to tap it is to pose questions that are less culturally specific. Possibilities include attitudes toward leadership, toward punishment of rules violators, toward out-groups, and toward traditional values. Ten examples of such items are presented below.

Society works best when…(choose one)
people realize the world is dangerous or
people initially assume all those in far away places are kindly.

leaders are obeyed or
leaders are questioned.

people are rewarded equally or
people are rewarded according to their abilities.

people compromise with their opponents in order to get things done or
people adhere to the principles they cherish no matter what.

people live according to traditional values or
people adjust their values to fit changing circumstances.

people take primary responsibility for their own welfare or
people join together to help others.

it speaks with one voice or
it speaks with many voices.

people recognize the flaws of human nature or
people recognize that humans can be changed in positive ways.

behavioral expectations are based on an eternal code or
behavioral expectations are allowed to evolve over the decades.

those who break the rules are punished or
those who break the rules are forgiven if they are authentically sorry.
(Alford and Hibbing 2006 18-19)

The issue of punishment changes from whether a fellow tribe member, known to you since birth, should be punished for stealing from the village stores to the nature of general and broadly applied rules of punishment no matter who the accused happens to be. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 19-20)

Those presented with an ideologically-laden subliminal stimulus, such as the word foreigner flashed more quickly than the visual cortex can handle, should show differential physiological reactions (galvanic skin response, for example) depending upon their political orientation. We are currently in the process of designing and testing physiological measurement procedures of this type. (Alford and Hibbing 2006 20)

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