Monday, October 17, 2011

Do genetic and environmental factors determine political orientation?

So often we see the truth of something, even talk or write about it, but don't fully realize the implications. And for me the implications of an idea which I have accepted for quite some time are finally, I think, sinking in. I'm talking about the idea that our - for want of a better word - ideological propensities (and perhaps values in general) are in large part determined by genetic and environmental factors.

Late last year and earlier this year there was a lot of publicity about a particular study (associated with the actor Colin Firth) concerning correlations between brain structure and political orientation. A paper detailing the results was published in April 2011 in Current Biology, and I had been meaning to have a close look at it, and perhaps to trace reactions and interpretations with a view to forming my own opinion on what it all might mean.

The study found that the gray matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex was generally greater amongst university students identifying as liberal or left wing, while the right amygdala was larger in those who identified as conservative or right wing.

Predictably, a lot of nonsense was written by journalists and bloggers on the significance and implications of this piece of research - much of it along the lines that conservatives are less evolved!

It goes without saying that our knowledge of how brain structure and brain activity relate to thought and behavior is very limited. Research into these areas is at a very early stage and this study is a small piece of a very large and largely incomplete jigsaw puzzle. What the study does do, however, is to provide evidence that our political propensities are correlated to brain structures, which in itself is a profoundly important result. What it does not do is to validate value judgements about specific political propensities.

As the authors of the study point out, their research extends previous findings which related certain kinds of brain activity to political attitudes. Reference is also made to a study of twins which indicates that genetics plays a significant role in determining political views, and to other studies which have focused on the interaction between genetics and the social environment. "For example," the authors write, "political orientation in early adulthood is influenced by an interaction between a variant of a dopamine receptor gene linked with novelty seeking and an environmental factor of friendship."

Though not mentioned by the authors, research on birth order has thrown significant light on these issues. As I noted in a post last year, first-borns have been found to score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation; later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. But, apparently, this pattern holds only within (rather than across) families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects.

All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that genetic and environmental factors play a big role in determining an individual's political orientation - and this is a hugely significant fact. When we engage in political (or similar kinds of) discussion and debate, we can no longer assume that we are dealing with people who - at least potentially - think like us. We all know from experience that such debate is usually (always?) futile, and at last, perhaps, we are beginning to understand why.

It is all very depressing for anyone who has been committed to the value of discussion and debate about values and politics. I want to face the implications of these findings head on. What consequences flow from them? Is ideological discussion a waste of time?

I'm still thinking about it.


  1. Makes me wonder...

    -What about people who change ideology over a lifetime?

    -What about people who have actually been persuaded through argument to change ideology?

    (I've never met any, but maybe they exist)

    -Is political debate simply a form of mental masturbation since minds cannot be changed?

  2. People do change their opinions over time. Ronald Reagan and Bill Bennett are examples of Republicans who started as Democrats. Are we to infer that their brains changed as well? And if so, are we further to conclude that any such changes amounted to a cause, and not an effect?

    About adult political conversion: In my case, reading Cicero and then William F. Buckley did the trick. Face-to-face argument too often turns into a Monty Python exercise in contradiction. Because they can be re-read at leisure, and without personal confrontation, written arguments can be more effective than oral exhortations (which usually just strengthen the convictions of partisans).

    What about religious conversion? Did C.S. Lewis's brain morphology change when he abandoned atheism? We'll never know about him, but what about others? Perhaps there have been studies.

  3. Heathen, yes people do change over time - as their brains change. I don't know how much change is possible.

    I'm sure there is an important place for discussion of certain kinds - clarificatory, evidence-based. But I think the main drivers of ideological orientation are genetic etc., and emotional. Values and emotions are so closely linked.

  4. CONSVLTVS, the cause/effect question is tricky. Would postulating some kind of feedback loop get around it?

    I'd be interested to know whether your earlier views incorporated conservative elements.

  5. I refute it thus:

    In 1943 most of Germany was cheering for Adolf Hitler.

    In 1949 most of Germany elected Konrad Adenauer as Chancellor.

    Adenauer and Hitler had totally different political philosophies.

    Brain structures don't change much in six years.

    Conclusion: brain structures don't explain political preference changes such as this one.

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  7. Alan, my understanding is that these differing brain structures etc. involve a complex mix of propensities. There would be no specific structure for 'Nazi' or 'center-right liberal democrat' or whatever. And, besides, a broad range of brain structures will be represented in any population even if in particular circumstances they vote overwhelmingly one way or another.

  8. Suppose the brain is divided into two parts, one for reasoning and one for emotion. Then, possibly, some people will be more developed in one and less in the other.

    But it seems to me one can be very emotional and either leftish or rightish politically. And one can be very rational and either leftish or rightish.

    So how does the brain predispose to this or that version of politics?

  9. This post harkens back to a specific discussion we had here last year and it also reflects Mark's frequently-raised issue concerning the nature or definition of "the self," the independence or agency of the individual, and by implication [shudder], free will. So it's all in character for you, Mark, to be concerned with these questions. They go to the heart of a very large issue: can humans overcome our petty differences in belief/ideology and create societies which are at once stable and just and rewarding andfree? Or are we doomed to acrimony, strife, oppression, chaos -- and ultimately self-destruction?

    But everyone who has responded above so far has given one reason or another why there is no ground for pessimism (or depression) about the efficacy of debate (nor our ability to save ourselves) even if these studies are correct.

    Political conversion, for instance, is a large and glaring counter-example the scientists must account for, before any of them announce that brain structure "determines" anything. And Consvltvs hits it on the head: are we looking at a cause, or an effect? When I think conservative thoughts, my amygdala might well be more active than my anterior cingulate cortex. And if I think them often enough, my amygdala might even grow (or) become more dense). Surely the two events would reinforce each other over time, and I might become more and more conservative -- but which is the cause, and which the effect? Point being, in part, the science is full of data but it's far too soon for conclusions. (If you ask, I will identify as conservative without hesitation, but if you ask me specific questions some of my answers will be considered liberal -- so the neurologist's results would be skewed, depending on questions asked).

    The science will get better over time, I have no doubt. But I predict the actuality it discovers will be so nuanced and packed with independent variables, its conclusions will not resemble "your brain (or DNA) is your fate." Instead it will more resemble "be careful what you wish for; you might get it."

    What does that mean for the efficacy of debate? Choose your weapons. Shoot straight. And assume you'll win.

    In the meantime, until the science matures, we must be careful (as you're pointing out) to draw justified conclusions. We must distinguish well between cause and effect, distinguish between "determination" and "influence," and correctly quantify the extent (and nature) of environmental factors such as culture and tradition in forming political opinions and moral judgments. I refuse to be a pessimist in the meantime.


  10. Alan, I think the key point is that thought and emotion are intertwined. Also, the brain works in a modular fashion - to a large extent, at any rate. I don't know how genetic and other influences predispose us to one side of politics or the other, but the research seems to indicate that they do, and I am just trying to come to terms with this fact.

  11. You are right to make the link to those previous discussions, gc, but I don't think the choice is as stark as you suggest. Even if certain kinds of ideological debate were shown to be futile, this would not necessarily entail chaos and doom.

    Your take on cause and effect is similar to mine (insofar as I mentioned a feedback mechanism). The genetic component is more clearly causal, though.

    You are right to caution against naive notions of determinism and I take seriously what you (and the other commenters) have said here, but I still think the research shows that conscious deliberation plays a less important role in forming our values than we are inclined to believe.

  12. Our values probably are conditioned by experience. Parents, teachers, childhood social environment etc all contribute, giving feedback to our actions. From these experiences we form (mostly subconsiously, no doubt) a working relationship with life -- attitudes, more or less. If we have any predispositions (brain-wise), they are probably emotional more than intellectual. One person might tend to react with alarm if someone falls off a chair, while another person's first reaction would be to laugh. Even these responses might be conditioned by experience, though filtered by whatever internal "chemistry" makes one person tend to anxiety and another tend to calm.

    But I maintain that when it comes to making choices, in deliberating on various problems we encounter, trying to figure out "what to do," our predispositions don't necessarily crowd out our intellect or reason. And in fact the best decisions tend to be those made with our emotions set aside as much as possible. Some people can do that, others cannot. We are never at a loss for making decisions if we let our emotions guide our actions -- but we are slaves to our passions if we do. I know you've read my essays on freedom, and part of the point there is we must think to be free. So I will always defend a role for deliberation, and pitch for transcending emotion in politics and ethics.

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  14. Thought and emotion are intertwined. But we knew that already, didn't we?

    I find myself bamboozled by attempts to link everyday social knowledge to stories about the brain.

    If, one day, a neuroscientist builds a falsifiable hypothesis from brain evidence only about everyday social life, and it tells us something we didn't already know, and it turns out to be true based on social evidence, then I will be happy to be proven wrong.

    Until then, no.

  15. GC, I certainly agree that some people are more impulsive than others, and that it is far better to think and plan and consider the consequences etc. than to act impulsively.

    Your account of forming a "working relationship with life" looks plausible to me.

  16. Alan, when I was 13 years old I had a sudden and terrible experience of dread - the sort of thing that had been interpreted in religious terms by so many before me (back to the Etruscans and beyond). Such experiences can be coped with far better if we are aware of the real causes. Perhaps because I have had such experiences (and have been closely associated with someone suffering from major depression), I have a more positive perspective than you do about what knowledge about the functioning of the brain can teach us. A lot, I believe - and not just about the malfunctioning brain.

  17. I hope I'm willing to learn from whatever brain science can teach us. Strokes and depression and Alzheimers are all obvious examples. (The latest news on Alzheimers, I'm told, is that we have no idea what causes it.)

    But you're an expert on logical positivism. What would your LP heroes think about the fantastic leaps of logic (as they seem to me) being made by the pop neuroscientists?

    I really like a move made by Stephen Johnson in his book "Mind Wide Open". He invents what he calls the "neuromap fallacy".

    "Your brain is filled with a lively cast of characters sharing space within your cranium, and while it's interesting to find out their exact addresses, that information is ultimately unsatisfying.... learning where jealousy lives in your head doesn't make you understand the emotion any more clearly".

    (Johnson's a good writer, I think.

  18. Alan, I agree there are many unjustified claims being made, but there is also a solid body of research in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and social psychology which is transforming the way we see ourselves. Obviously we can deal with normal social life without such scientific knowledge (some people better than others!) but this material does (in my opinion) throw new light on ordinary life and experience as well as on disease and disability.

    Steven Pinker's books are very lucid and pretty sound scientifically - though there is always controversy in the sorts of areas he writes about. Antonio Damasio is good. I enjoyed his Looking for Spinoza. But I must admit I haven't read any very recent books on neuroscience or related topics.