John Hibbing and Kevin Smith co-direct the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their recent article in Trends in Cognitive Science concludes: “Although many people want to believe that their positions on moral, religious, and political issues are the product of rational, conscious thought, the reality is that subthreshold, biologically instantiated predispositions shape all human attitudes, leading people to rationalize their positions and actions.” John generously allowed me to interview him about it:
Chris: John, first tell us about you. What got you interested in the relationship between biology and political science?
John: I was trained as a traditional political scientist and studied Congress, elections, and public attitudes, but I increasingly came to the conclusion that surveys (in which people report their own perceptions) do not reveal everything, since humans are notoriously bad at understanding themselves. Thus I became interested in techniques that would help us understand the human condition, especially as it relates to politics, without forcing people to try to explain themselves.
The lab you co-direct with Kevin Smith is unique. What kinds of journals and departments, if any, should develop elsewhere to confirm or expand your findings?
Our lab was probably the first of its kind in a political science department, but, for some time, psychologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral geneticists have been probing the extent to which political orientations mesh with non-political aspects of our person. There is a gradually growing core of people–mostly psychologists–expanding and confirming our findings. A good indication of this was a piece we recently published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that attracted 26 commentaries.
You have been studying the role of biological factors in explaining political variation for 20 years, and the law that all human behavioral traits are heritable has been known for well over a decade. How, then, does your work in Trends in Cognitive Science qualify as a “trend”?
I’m not sure. The editors from Trends in Cognitive Science asked us to submit that piece, so they must have thought there would be interest. There is more attention to the politics-biology connection now than there was 10-20 years ago, and I think it is only going to grow.
After acknowledging that twin studies consistently find political orientation to be strongly heritable, your article highlighted research on the particular gene DRD4. Why bother studying particular genes?
In terms of understanding the pathways through which biology affects politics, it would be quite useful to know the particular genes involved because that would indicate where in the brain to look. DRD4, for example, directs attention to the dopamine reward system.
What would it cost to identify the particular genes that make behavior heritable, and who would fund such research?
It is not that expensive these days to genotype people. The problem is that, to do the research properly, you need sample sizes of many, many thousands, and that can be a problem, especially when it is not common to collect political data along with the DNA. Our lab has moved away from doing candidate gene association studies because there is so much more to biology than just the DNA nucleotide sequence. For example, many environmental experiences can eventually become instantiated in our biological characteristics, so it is important for readers to realize that biology does not have to be genetic [to be immutable].
You also wrote about measuring biological underpinnings using EEG, the technology behind neurogaming. Does this imply that one might use a neurogaming headset to identify environments, such as particular workplaces, which are more or less likely to overwrite one’s values?
We do know that experiences, such as driving a taxi in London, can alter certain areas on the brain…
The Pew Center recently reported that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans in the U.S. see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. How should they act on their beliefs, given the evidence that the disagreement stems from biological diversity?
Research by Shanto Iyengar shows that political differences are increasingly a reason for bias–people are more likely today than a few decades ago to say it would bother them to have their child marry someone with opposing political beliefs–while most other traits and factors (e.g., sexual orientation) are decreasingly a reason for bias. So the problem is real.
Our basic pitch is that, if people recognize that that their political opponents experience the world differently from a cognitive and physiological point of view, it should make them more tolerant of political differences, just as we became more tolerant when we found out that mental disabilities, left-handedness, and sexual orientation had biological bases. People should be less proud of their own beliefs, because hubris is a big reason we have the gridlock and terrorism that we do.
Lamenting terrorism, failed policy initiatives, and ruined family reunions, you wrote that research findings suggest a need to revise traditional views of political opinion. Care to elaborate?
Quit calling them names and thinking that they will “come around” when persuasive arguments are made. Compromise needs to be stressed more and deliberation needs to be stressed less.
The imperative for compromise is John’s big message. We spoke at length about how compromise might be determined, but ended up with unanswered questions. John’s insight that humans are bad at understanding themselves is demonstrated by his experiment in which the average conservative and liberal claim to have the same reactions to pictures of dead animals, but brain scans of those reactions reveal differences significant enough to identify political orientation. We also discussed evidence that genetic and self-report measures correspond differently at different ages. The average person seems to spend 20-50 years shifting his/her self-report, but efforts to mold the young tend to unravel, leaving us ultimately aligned with the diverse orientations we inherited at birth. John wanted to emphasize that schemes to control politics through genetic engineering oversimplify the way genes work. Many different genes interact, and they interact with major life events, including social reforms. His discoveries are tools less for social engineering than for giving politicians the same reverent respect for societies that medical doctors have gained for the human body.
To learn more about John and Kevin’s research, buy their book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, coauthored with John Alford from Rice University.