Left or Right, It's All in Your Genes

Ransom Riggs

At a time when American politicians are calling for more cooperation between left and right, boasting about having "reached across the aisle" and heralding the coming of a "post-partisan" era, I think it's fair to ask: can liberals and conservatives ever really, truly understand one another?

It's something you hear a lot when discussing "the other side" (whichever side that may be): "I just don't get it; why do they think that way?" Well, a new study suggests that in addition to economic and geographic factors, your genes may play a significant role in determining how you vote. Could it be that the true die-hards are simply born either liberal or conservative? Could there be a biological basis for your political leanings?

According to the study, the key is "differing levels of fear that people naturally feel."

The researchers, whose findings were published today in the journal Science, looked at 46 people who fell into two camps -- liberals who supported foreign aid, immigration, pacifism and gun control; and conservatives who advocated defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war. In an initial experiment, subjects were shown a series of images that included a bloody face, maggots in a wound and a spider on a frightened face. A device measured the electrical conductance of their skin, a physiological reaction that indicates fear. In a second experiment, researchers measured eye blinks -- another indicator of fear -- as subjects responded to sudden blasts of noise. Compared with staunch liberals, people with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful after factoring out the effects of gender, age, income and education, which can all affect political attitudes.

While it seems far too early to jump wholeheartedly on board such a strange and limited study, it's certainly interesting. It's also important to echo political scientist James Fowler, who notes that there's a growing body of research regarding the evolution of two distinct human cognitive styles: liberal and conservative. Cautious conservatives prevented societies from taking undue risks, while more flexible liberals fostered cooperation. "For the species to survive, you need both," he said.

Source: LA Times.