Indirect Genetic Effects on Politics

Indirection is the way.

Hatemi & Martin found this. Their study of Australian twins attempted to expand on earlier work that found strong genetic influence on political ideology but only a weak genetic influence on party choice. That finding, which Fowler’s paper reinforced, implied that genes influence political orientation directly but party choice, and presumably vote, only indirectly through ideology. However, that was ambiguous and the possibility remained that there was a separate genetic influence on party-identification and vote-choice than on ideology. Hatemi & Martin’s findings confirmed that vote-choice was an effect of genetic influence on orientation, and that there was not a directly genetic influence on vote choice.


McDermott et al.’s theory was more promising. Zak found that cortisol directly influenced trust. Could a similar direct influence by found for testosterone when applied to political organizations? The answer was no, implying yet again that politics is indirectly influenced by genetic factors. Testosterone was only correlated to political aggression was both sexes were treated as one population, which amounts to saying that men are more politically aggressive than women.

Similarly, in his presentation Hibbing echoed a point made by Carmen. The distribution among political beliefs by those who are politically active appears to be bimodal, which implies a “gene for” political persuasion. (As Hibbing discussed in his lecture, bimodal distributions are common for features controlled by a single factor, such as eye color, but rare for features controlled by man, such as height.) However, this same distribution might be the result of a modal distribution where the tails are disproportionately represented. That is, political beliefs may be normally distributed by an interaction with a separate factor that causes intensity may make it appear bimodal through self-selection. In his paper, Carmen noted “Dopamine overload correlates with highly risky behavior: too much gambling, too much sex, too much drinking. What about too much politics? How would one define “too much politics”” Perhaps here again is an indirect link, with people who feel strongly for the status quo not going into politics, and an interaction leading to the apparent divisiveness.

To me, this ties in with Hibbing & Theiss-Morse’s previous research on Congress. In books and articles, those authors have argued that public distrust of Congress comes from perceived procedural injustice. It’s as if the legislature really is the sausage factory, and it’s being judged by OSHA (how the sausage is made) and not Consumer Reports (what the sausage is made of). Laboratory experiments have appeared to confirm people’s self-reports, in that perceived injustice matters about as much as outcome. Yet in his speech, Hibbing outlined how he believe genetic influences fall into only weekly correlated psychological, social, and political spheres. If this is the case the lab experiments implying that people dislike unfairness simply may not apply to political situations.

Still, research can be done. The “political” influences on human behavior may not so much be “how should society be run” as “how should a society be run” — that is, how should groups larger than fifteen members be organized. The Era of Evolutionary Adaption (EEA) for small-band life and the EEA for large-group life appear to be from different eras. “Political” genetic orientation may merely be a large-n case of “social” orientation. This can be tested in a laboratory experiment. Find an issue where social and political influences converge. The run a laboratory experiments with groups of varying sizes (5, 10, 20, 30, etc) you should expect to see a transition from “social” to “political attitudes” as the group size increases. Thus political attitudes are not “how society should be organized” so much as “how should our large-n group be organized”?

Another method, perhaps more indirect, can be used as well. The Hibbing lecture implies that there are two “types’ of political people – absolutists and contextualists. Earlier research on economic games implies three types – wary cooperators, altruists, and egoists. It seems clear that there is no easy mapping of one set of types to another. If there really is a transition from social to political orientation as group size increases, it should be possible to observe these three social types becoming two political types. In other words, it should be possible to create a game where wary/altruist/egoist strategies are available but absolutist/contextualist ones also exist for deliberative decision making. As the n increases, a phase change should occur that transitions the players from the social strategies to the political beliefs.

A story that I am reading as I write this gives another, perhaps easier, method to test the hypothesis. A 1993 articles by Stanley Coren noted that student’s misperceive political biases based based on the presentation of factual information. If the social-political split is actually a factor of group size, then this should be significantly more apparent in large lecture classes (30+ students) than small classes (15- students).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *