Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hobgoblins, devils, and politics

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
    -- H. L. Mencken

Political Attitudes Are Predicted By Physiological Traits, Research Finds (9/18/08)

Alford and his colleagues studied a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs. Those individuals with "measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War," the authors wrote. ...

In a later session, they were attached to physiological measuring equipment and shown three threatening images (a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it) interspersed among a sequence of 33 images. Similarly, participants also viewed three nonthreatening images (a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child) placed within a series of other images. A second test used auditory stimuli to measure involuntary responses to a startling noise.

The researchers noted a correlation between those who reacted strongly to the stimuli and those who expressed support for "socially protective policies," which tend to be held by people "particularly concerned with protecting the interests of the participants' group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats." These positions include support for military spending, warrantless searches, the death penalty, the Patriot Act, obedience, patriotism, the Iraq War, school prayer and Biblical truth, and opposition to pacifism, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, compromise, premarital sex, gay marriage, abortion rights and pornography.

It's this election season's well-timed release of a poli-psy research study connecting political behavior with behavior in general. And why shouldn't a particular type of individual behavior have something in common with other types?

Perhaps the main resistance to such a connection comes from the optimistic notion that ideological choices are somehow more "rational" and carefully thought out than other types of choices – like preferences for particular fragrances, colors, or ice cream flavors.

Or, at least, that political opinions are based on real-life experience rather than on whatever it is that shapes physiological responses.

We've been over similar ground a few times before. See here, here.

So what to make of this study? Political scientists generally accept that there are personality factors that correlate with political beliefs. Personality factors usually have both genetic and developmental roots. The genetic roots will also usually be expressed in various physiological attributes of an individual.

Just as genetic factors affect personality and behavior and physiology, it isn't unreasonable to suppose that personality and behavioral tendencies affect political beliefs. (Causation may well go in the other way, too, from beliefs to personality and behavior.) So it's not unreasonable that physiological attributes may also correlate with beliefs.

As far as this research is concerned – it's interesting, but quite a bit more data and research will be needed for a persuasive case.

Here's the actual abstract of the study:

Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits
Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals' experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

Unsurprisingly, given what time of the year it is, this research has received its share of media attention. For example:

Ideology in Your DNA? Not Quite (9/19/08)
The study had its limitations — the sample size was small and all of the subjects were white Nebraskans — but it’s still a small step toward a greater understanding our ever-increasing ideological divide, even if the answer doesn’t lie in our genes.

That political beliefs per se are not in our genes is obvious. What's in our DNA got there over the last 3 or 4 billion years, and the part that's specifically human, over the last 200,000 or so years. Contemporary ideologies were not around for most of that time. But what was around was a world that was usually hazardous to an organism's existence, so consequently a whole panoply of predispositions evolved to efficiently deal with threats. Of course, all individuals of a given species don't have exactly the same predispositions, because different strategies can be effective even in similar situations.

However, there is research that shows, based on twin studies, the probable existence of some genetic factors that correlate with political belief. For example:

Political Views May Be Genetically Influenced, Twin Study Shows (2/6/08)
Research by Rice University professor of political science John Alford indicates that what is on one's mind about politics may be influenced by how people are wired genetically.

Alford, who has researched this topic for a number of years, and his team analyzed data from political opinions of more than 12,000 twins in the United States and supplemented it with findings from twins in Australia. Alford found that identical twins were more likely to agree on political issues than were fraternal twins.

On the issue of property taxes, for example, an astounding four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion, while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.

Not coincidentally, Alford is a co-author of the Science paper we're discussing. He also makes a good common-sense case for the role of genetics in understanding political opinion and behavior:
Alford believes that political scientists are too quick to dismiss genetics; rather, he believes genetics should be studied and taught along with social-environment influences.

"It has been proven that genetics plays a role in a myriad of different human interaction and makeup," said Alford. "Why should we exclude political beliefs and attitudes?"

Even more to the point, there are studies that show that the emotion of fear – fear of death, specifically – influences political opinion. In particular, the opinions that people express can be influenced by whether or not thoughts of death are on their minds. For example:

Fear of death may factor into who we vote for (12/21/05)
Authors of a study published in the latest issue of Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy believe that voting behavior should be the result of rational choice based on an informed understanding of the issues. But using research based on the 2004 presidential election, they found that people may vote with their hearts, rather than their heads. Their findings demonstrated that registered voters in a psychologically benign state of mind preferred Senator Kerry to President Bush, but Bush was more popular than Kerry after voters received a subtle reminder of death.

(Another news report on this: here.)

Again, it shouldn't be all that surprising that having a fear of death in their minds could affect people's political opinions. After all, a fear of death certainly affects religious opinions. Death, speculation about an individual's fate after it occurs, and the fear of it, are central features of most religions. Religions generally compete among themselves to tell self-promotional stories about the favorable rewards that will accrue after death to true believers of the religion. And those religions which promise the most attractive rewards generally are the most successful.

Speculations about the evolutionary and social origins of religious belief generally assign an important role in those origins to human concerns and fears of death, and the way religious beliefs are constructed to help cope with those fears.

So if fear, and the ways that an individual typically deals with it, play a big role in religious opinion, why not in political opinion also? Of course, this would also explain well-known correlations between the religious and political beliefs of people. Religion and politics consist of ideologies with a lot of overlap.

As long as we're speculating, we may as well go all in and take note of important similarities between government and religion. In particular, government and religion are both social institutions created to deal with fears inherent in social living. Religion is primarily concerned with the fear of death itself, in any form, and secondarily with behavior of others or oneself that might threaten an individual's welfare. The latter concern is the province of "morality".

[Added 6/16/09: Here's Bertrand Russell's take on this: "Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes." - from Why I Am Not a Christian]

Government has these same two concerns, but generally in reverse order – except for extremes such as homicidal behavior and warfare. Government usually deals with less dire threats, but most political philosophers agree that one of its primary functions is to allay fears of the Hobbesian "war of all against all".

So government and religion are twin institutions that developed from the same seed – fear. Sometimes they are even Siamese twins, in theocracies and states with theocratic elements.

Let's go back now to the psychology of fear, and the question of how much role genetics may play in the experience of fear, physiological signs of fear, and hence a possible connection with political attitudes.

This is quite an interesting question in itself, and there is recent research that's relevant:

Mice Missing 'Fear' Gene Slow To Protect Offspring (9/15/08)
First, he discovered a gene that controls innate fear in animals. Now Rutgers geneticist Gleb Shumyatsky has shown that the same gene promotes "helicopter mom" behavior in mice. The gene, known as stathmin or oncoprotein 18, motivates female animals to protect newborn pups and interact cautiously with unknown peers.

This "fear gene" is highly concentrated in the amygdala, a key region of the brain that deals with fear and anxiety. Shumyatsky's newest finding could enhance our understanding of human anxiety, including partpartum depression and borderline personality disorders.

Here's a blog post on the research and here's the research abstract:

Stathmin reveals dissociable roles of the basolateral amygdala in parental and social behaviors
Innate parental behaviors and adult social interactions are essential for survival of the individual along with the species as a whole. Because these behaviors require threat assessment of the environment, it is plausible that they are regulated by the amygdala-associated neural circuitry of fear. However, the amygdala is not a single anatomic and functional unit, and nuclei of the amygdala have multiple inter- and intra-connections. This poses a question as to the exact role of different amygdala nuclei in these behaviors and the mechanisms involved. The basolateral complex of the amygdala nuclei (BLA) is particularly interesting in this regard: although the BLA role in forming memories for learned fear is established, the BLA role in innate behaviors is not well understood. We recently demonstrated that mice without an inhibitor of microtubules, stathmin, a gene enriched in BLA-associated circuitry, have deficiency in innate and learned fear. Here we show that the deficiency in fear processing in stathmin−/− females leads to improper threat assessment, which in turn affects innate parental care and adult social interactions.

Below are some blog commentaries on the political attitudes paper of Hibbing, Oxley, et al. It's interesting that these bloggers have expertise in biology, psychology, and neuroscience, but none seem to have a professional political science perspective (as some of the paper's co-authors do).

Some of these blog posts correctly point out methodological reasons why the study cannot be construed to "prove" a hypothesis. However, that does not seem to have been the intention of the researchers who did the study. I think they were more interested in finding plausible evidence for the hypothesis, as a first step to pursuing their ideas in more depth.

Additional news reports:
D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627

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