Researchers’ new book tackles biological underpinnings of politics

· 4 min read

Researchers’ new book tackles biological underpinnings of politics

UNL political scientists Kevin Smith (left) and John Hibbing are co-authors of the new book "Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences." (Craig Chandler/University Communications)

Puzzled why Congress is so tied in knots that it would shut down government rather than compromise?

Quite frankly, the divide between liberals and conservatives may not be something that responds to logic, according to Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences, released last month by Routledge Publishing.

“Information and persuasion don’t work,” said co-author Kevin B. Smith, a UNL professor of political science. “You can’t enlighten them, or scare them, or guilt them into changing their minds.”

Intended for popular audiences, Predisposed provides an overview of a growing research field linking political orientation to biology, genetics and psychology. Smith and his co-authors – fellow UNL political science professor John Hibbing and John R. Alford of Rice University – are nationally recognized leaders in the blossoming field.

Because political orientation is so deeply ingrained, liberals and conservatives might actually be viewed as “somewhat distinct species,” they say in their book.

“Liberals might perceive that conservatives are scared of everything, that everything is a threat,” said Hibbing. “Conservatives might say ‘that liberals just don’t get it.’”

That makes it very difficult to change minds, at least those on the extreme ends of the scale.

“Pretending that some middle-ground nirvana can be reached if only we listen to the other side is counterproductive and a source of endless frustration,” the book says. “We want liberals and conservatives to understand why they are different from each other and why those differences frequently seem so unbridgeable.”

The political scientists note that shared political orientation is the third most common factor – after shared drinking habits and shared religion – used in selecting a spouse. It comes ahead of shared education levels, economic backgrounds and personality types.

Pointing to how gay rights gained wider acceptance as more people came to view homosexuality as an innate characteristic, the Predisposed authors argue that people may become more tolerant of political differences if they believe political orientation is innate.

“We need to get past the stage where liberals/conservatives are in a contest to show that they are the most outraged by their ideological opponents,” the authors say. “Accept the fact that the main reason your political opponents hold the views they do is not laziness, a lack of information, or willfully bad judgment, but rather physiological and psychological contours that are fundamentally different than yours.”

They say that political predispositions are strongest at either end of the spectrum.

At one end are conservatives who lean toward supporting tradition and the status quo, view outsiders with suspicion and support strong sanctions for rule breakers. At the other are liberals who lean toward experimentation and untested experiences, view outsiders with curiosity and are tolerant of rule breakers.

Those are not merely Republican-Democrat divides, nor are they simple disagreements over health care reform, building transnational oil pipelines or other issues of the day. They are bedrock social differences that have existed at least since Athens and Sparta, the authors say.

“Politics is deep and fundamental to humans; it defines us as a species and is likely, quite literally, in our DNA,” they write.

Those with the strongest predispositions tend to be more politically active. In the middle are moderates wondering what all the fuss is about.

The authors offer some caution about their theories, however. They are careful to make a distinction between their concepts and the idea that people are genetically programmed to act the way they do. Environment and life events also shape predispositions, they say.

“To say it’s nature, not nurture, is too simplistic,” Hibbing said. “It’s not as simple as ‘you’re born that way.’ Biology is more than genetics.

“All the relationships we describe are only tendencies, not hard and fast rules. Predispositions are not destiny, but defaults – defaults that can be and frequently are overridden. There’s a reason the title of this book is Predisposed and not Fated.”

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