Politics: Is voting determined by nature, or nurture?
The Top Story by Chris Graham
You don’t want to believe it – that the way you vote is determined by biology. And while it might be taking things a little to the extreme to say that the study led by Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Pete Hatemi pins everything that you think about politics to your DNA, the basics are there, as is the underlying idea that so much else about us is determined by our genes.
“A lot of people hear about this and say, No, I don’t believe that, I’m not a product of my biology,” said Hatemi, who coauthored the study suggesting a link between political attitudes and physiological responses with a pair of University of Nebraska researchers, Kevin Smith and John Hibbing, published last month in the journal Science. “When you say the way you think is not determined by your genes, I tell people, You are your genes. You can’t separate yourself from your physiology and biology. You are who you are. And these things actually make a difference,” Hatemi said.
The research team based its findings on a study of 46 adult participants who were connected to a skin-conductance machine to measure their responses to a series of threatening and nonthreatening stimuli – including pictures and video of a spider on a person’s face, a dazed individual with a bloody face, a bunny, a bowl of fruit, a happy child and others – then later were taken through a survey of individual political concepts including support for the military to the death penalty to gun control.
According to the paper on their research written by Hatemi, Smith and Hibbing, “participants whose policy positions suggest more concern for protecting the social unit were distinguished by an increase in skin conductance when threatening stimuli were presented.” Or in something akin to layman’s terms: “People who have a stronger response to threatening stimuli tend to have a more conservative position on these issues,” Hatemi told me in a recent interview. And vice versa, those who have a lesser response to threatening stimuli tend to have what is considered a more liberal position on those political issues, Hatemi said.
Another rule of politics might also be explained by the Hatemi-Smith-Hibbing study: “This would seem to indicate that you can use fear to basically drive people what they think are rational decisions, and you can use this information to cue the public into having a fear response,” Hatemi said. “That has been true since Julius Caesar onward. It was Caesar who said, If you can drive the public to fear, you won’t have to take power from them, they’ll gladly give it to you. And it shows to be the case that we have a population that appears to be fairly evenly split where one group is a lot more sensitive to fear stimuli.”
Hatemi cautioned that the research is still new and that more extensive study will have to be done to determine more about the linkage between biology and political attitudes. But it does sort of confirm something that many of us have noticed about the nature of political debate – as Hatemi put it, that “even when you think you get a great argument, and you get all the facts lined up, and you try to convince someone of a certain position based on that, it’s almost impossible to convince some people who have a strong position, and it doesn’t matter what evidence you throw at them. They just see it completely differently, and it doesn’t matter where you grew up or how you were raised, there are just different ways of processing information.”
“If you really do have a debate with somebody and try to change their minds, knowing this information might help you to be more understanding to the opposition view,” Hatemi said. “It might be that they just view the information differently. It’s not that they’re stupid, and it’s not you can’t get through to them, and it’s not that they’re stubborn. It’s that they actually see it differently and feel it differently. They feel it in their gut differently. You ever heard anybody say, It made me sick to my stomach? They’re actually not kidding when they say that. They literally get the same feeling as if they were going to throw up.”