September 18, 2008
Political Orientation Tied To Biological Reaction To Threats

John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska Lincoln and John R. Alford of Rice University have made a name for themselves studying twins and political beliefs. They've found evidence of a genetic component for political leanings. In a new paper in Science working with several collaborators they find that those rightward leaning folks who favor a strong national defense react more strongly to threatening visual and sound stimuli. This is additional evidence for very innate cognitive differences as causes of political views.

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.

Just watching how much someone blinks in reaction to threatening stimuli will help you figure out their hidden political beliefs. All my professional interrogator readers please take note.

This study involved a group of 46 people who admitted to caring about political issues. Researchers showed participants threatening visual images -- pictures of a very large spider on a person's face, a dazed person with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it -- and their skin was monitored for electrical conductivity. Hibbing said skin conductance tests indicate emotion, arousal and attention. By using the skin conductance tests, the researchers are able to track a person's reactions to the threatening stimuli.

In another physiological measure, scientists tested the "orbicularis oculi startle blink response" to record the amplitude or intensity of blinks. They surprised subjects with a sudden, jarring noise and measured how hard they blinked in response to being startled.

In the comments of previous postings I've done on this general area some have argued that once we understand the genetic causes of political differences we'll become more tolerant of opposing viewpoints. I expect the opposite reaction. When people come to understand that it is not possible to persuade their opponents on many topics I expect people will become less tolerant of opposing views. There'll be a reduction in feelings of shared membership in a common identity. Each side will say its views make sense but that the opposing side has a genetic burden that prevents them from understanding the truth.

Hibbing at least holds out the possibility that greater knowledge about the biological causes of political differences will increase tolerance for those who differ. That's probably just his genes talking.

"And if political beliefs do run as deep as we suggest, it becomes easier to understand why political conflict is so persistent. It's not that those who disagree with us politically are being intentionally stubborn but rather that the world seems very different to them. Perhaps recognition of the deep physical nature of these differences will increase political tolerance and understanding," Hibbing concluded.

But Hibbing admits that even with these research results each side can rationalize why their side is right and the other side is wrong.

"Liberals will probably say conservatives are scaredy cats," while conservatives might call liberals naive, he says. "The more important point is that people differ".

Conservatives react more strongly to spiders than liberals?

"Those with the strongest eye or skin reactions to unexpected noises or threatening pictures such as a spider on a person's eyeball tended to endorse political positions that were interpreted as protective of social groups," said John Hibbing, professor of political science at UNL.

Some day a totalitarian government might strap its subjects into chairs, hook up sensors to their skin, and then show them frightening and disgusting pictures. Anyone who does not react correctly will be weeded out from the gene pool by sterilization or death.

When prospective parents (or state birthing units) start choosing genes for their kids will they choose genes that make them more or less likely to recognize threats in their environments? Will offspring genetic engineering make people more conservative or more left-leaning? Or what?

Update: Reacting to this paper Razib pictures a future where adoptive parents screen babies for compatible political leanings.

So it's complicated. But it's comprehensible. Does this matter for you? The physiological responses above are interesting, because it seems like you might be able to test at a very young age for them. If you are an adoptive parent perhaps you might want to screen your potential children for political compatibility. A few weeks ago I listened to a documentary about a woman in Argentina who had been kidnapped as an infant and adopted by a different family. In her particular circumstances here biological parents were left-wing activists killed by a military junta. Her adoptive family were associated with the right-wing junta. She did not find out about her origins until she was 18, but, she observed that she had always had political differences with the family in which she was raised and was active in left-wing politics as a teenager. Remember she was adopted as an infant!

Why stop with adoptions? The bigger screening will get done on embryos by parents conceiving via in vitro fertilization (IVF). In fact, the ability to screen for political compatibility will be one of the reasons why many more parents in the future opt for IVF and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

The ability to screen embryos for political leanings will make babies more like their parents and therefore make families more internally consistent. This will increase the mutual incomprehensibility between political factions. A liberal parent won't become more tolerant of conservatives in general as a result of the experience of raising a conservative son. Or a conservative father won't become more tolerant of liberals as a result of raising a surprisingly very radical daughter. There'll be fewer people in the political middle and fewer people with close friends and family members of opposing views. I see a politically more balkanized future.

Update II: John Hawks takes a very critical look at this paper. My reaction: Yes, the paper doesn't prove anything. But compelling evidence exists from twins studies for genetic influences on political views. That these differences might manifest in reactions to threats seems plausible given the very different reaction that conservatives have toward issues related to security and dangers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 18 11:38 PM  Brain Society

Brock said at September 19, 2008 12:17 AM:

What will be really interesting will be finding out which gene leads to better predictions about how the world _actually_ works in the objective, scientific sense. Which community will be "reality based" then?

I wonder how getting mugged effects gene expression ...

Dragon Horse said at September 19, 2008 12:32 PM:

Well since Randall is one of the most paranoid people I have met on the net, and almost all the paranoid people are conservative I would say that is true. Liberals have conspiracy theories too and ridiculous fears but they don't tend to go hide out in the woods with a million guns preparing for Armageddon and the Great Race War (Helter Skelter) LOL

bee said at September 19, 2008 6:33 PM:

This is junk science at its best. I am shocked that Randall would even waste a minute with this research. The signs of junk science are clear. Discipline conducting the research, research method not connected to causal level, sample size, control variables, etc.. Randall how can a bright guy like you not see that this is pure crap and pass? How can one make an inference about a genotype based upon questions that cannot even be appropriately mapped to cognitions or emotions?

Kelly Parks said at September 19, 2008 6:59 PM:

The totalitarian government would do just the opposite, Randall. If the test showed conservative tendencies you'd be executed immediately because that'd be proof you weren't the kind of person likely to submit to a totalitarian government. Those that passed would be the ones that believed government had all the answers.

I offer as proof every totalitarian government from the 20th century. Collectively they were responsible for more deaths than all wars combined and all of them were leftist regimes of one flavor or another.

Randall Parker said at September 19, 2008 7:53 PM:


Yes, the sample size is small. But I expected the result.


You ask a very interesting question. I expect the reality-based subpopulation to be pretty small. It'll have some conservative elements. But it'll have some other elements as well.

Kelly Parks,

I think that a totalitarian government will want meek personalities. That's not necessarily left or right leaning. Just meek, intimidated, subservient. Betas to the max.

Kelly Parks said at September 19, 2008 8:07 PM:


They want the meek for betas and True Believers for alphas. True Believers are the ones that agree with the idea that the government should be in charge of every aspect of your life and those who disagree are either evil or crazy. See, for example, the regular practice in the old Soviet Union of sending those who criticized the state to mental institutions.

People who are untrusting and easily spooked tend to have a low opinion of the good intentions of their fellow man, especially when those fellow men are members of a committee or similar bureaucratic gathering. They are surly curmudgeons and make poor candidates for totalitarian citizens.

Randall Parker said at September 19, 2008 8:18 PM:

Kelly Parks,

Certainly there's room for specialization of personality types in a totalitarian society. There are personality types that like being police and military. There are personality types that like being sycophants. It would make sense for a totalitarian dictatorship of long time running to develop specialized population segments for different purposes.

David Lee said at September 19, 2008 8:58 PM:

They're cowards. So what's new?
Reminds me of a little anecdote.
Average income of those who prefer playing basketball - 25k-35k per year
Average income of those who prefer playing tennis - 55k-75k per year
Average income of those who prefer playing golf - 120k-150k per year

From this data we can hypothesize that the larger your income, the smaller your balls.

Kelly Parks said at September 19, 2008 9:27 PM:


True. But more relevant to our discussion, there are the personality types that like being in the secret police, an essential element in any totalitarian regime. These are the people that are the truest of True Believers, who see anyone who disagrees with the government as threats to the state and have no guilt about hauling them away in the middle of the night.

So with that in mind, I point once again to the available empirical examples: the various police states of the 20th century that employed secret police forces. Leftists all.

Even the best known example in American history, the "American Protective League" (tasked with arresting anyone who criticized the government or the war effort during WWI), was under Woodrow Wilson, a democrat.

Statism/totalitarianism is a leftist concept.

K said at September 20, 2008 12:16 AM:

Randall: The question is whether the parents will be doing the gene selection. Or will it be the state in one guise or another.

Mom and dad may fill out a questionnaire indicating what they want. But the treatment they actually get will be done by others licensed by the state.

Think about a flu shot. Today at Walmart I could have got a yearly flu shot. Since I am on Medicare it would be free, otherwise five or ten bucks. What reason did I have to believe it was really a flu shot. Or the nurse was actually trained? Or even that it was the county health service she worked for? Blah, blah, blah.

We will all end up relying upon the equivalent of faith; i.e. we will have no idea what was in that needle, and now in our neurons, or DNA.

You have had cited several studies recently that were so statistically anemic as to be worthless. Stuff like "babies gaze at conservative faces four five seconds and liberals for several." I believe you also posted the "sexually satisfied women walk differently."

How about another much needed, interesting, and definitive topic such as "women can correctly estimate penis size from pictures of a man's cell phone"?

M said at September 20, 2008 3:04 AM:


It is true that most, if not all, totalitarian governments are leftist in nature (or at least claim to be), but the entire nature of the "secret police" is one of paranoia: that someone is plotting against the regime and that they, these 'Gestapo" or whatever they're called, have the power to stomp out that threat with ruthless terrorism, all the more powerful for coming from the shadows. This requires that the person is entirely devoted to the ideals of the government (or at least sees great personal gain in seeming to), but not that their personalities are inherently docile and non-aggressive. In fact, as you yourself put it, these are people "...who see anyone who disagrees with the government as 'threats' to the state and have no guilt about hauling them away in the middle of the night." They see a threat to their ideals and use force to protect them from the perceived threat, which certainly sounds like a rather aggressive thing to do, not something for the sheep of society, and based on the results of this study they should be more right-minded. A totalitarian regime couldn't exist without a solid corps of aggressive people willing to use force to uphold that regime, otherwise they're just a mindless herd of sycophants around a preachy leader with nothing to back him/her/it up.

In fact, the reference you made to the APL also showcases a historic case of aggressive paranoia in American history, as the government and populous alike lashed out at "communists" they perceived to be lurking among them. There seems, to me at least, to be a conflict of ideas here. You say that ideal leftist lackeys are docile and less prone to react aggressively to negative stimuli, and yet you cite examples of them doing just that. "He's a communist, get him!". Sheep, yes, but sheep trained and eager to attack. I remind you, striking out at something out of fear is, from this study, considered to be a conservative marker.

I'm agreeing with Randall in this case. If there were some sort of Leftist Totalitarian Regime that had the power to examine the genes of all children at an early age, they could easily delegate different groups with certain personalities to special schools fitting them. Those with aggressive personalities could be put into police or military positions, and the pacifists could be put into manual labor positions. There would also be varying levels of intelligence and physical ability and that would determine other roles. Brainwashing is easy, regardless of personality, if you catch them while they're young. After a couple generations under such a regime there would be little resistance, as long as media is tightly controlled (ala Fahrenheit 451, etc.), but you STILL have to have that aggressive force to threaten non-believers and generally bully the citizens, or it doesn't really work out. Granted, those with mental illness generally leading to excessively violent, and therefore difficult to control, personalities would probably be disposed of, but I assume that among the aggressive half of humanity inherent psychotics are fairly uncommon.

Kelly Parks said at September 20, 2008 9:19 AM:

"You say that ideal leftist lackeys are docile and less prone to react aggressively to negative stimuli, and yet you cite examples of them doing just that."


Actually I said no such thing. I said ideal totalitarian lackeys are the true believer type, i.e. zealous and committed to the idea that the government has all the answers and should be in charge of all things. And that is a leftist point of view.

And Woodrow Wilson's APL wasn't looking for communists (this was 1918). They were looking for German sympathizers and anyone openly critical of the Wilson administration, often getting neighbor to inform on neighbor. Wilson was a democrat, hence one more example of the Left being the ones likely to employ secret police.

Randall Parker said at September 20, 2008 11:56 AM:


Regarding flu shots: We have too open a society and too many medical and scientific experts with strong motives to blow the whistle that the idea that companies are selling millions of worthless flu shots (or shots that did something else entirely) in the United States seems extremely implausible.

As for genetic engineering of offspring: What was done will be verifiable after birth. Just do genetic testing of the babies and see if you got what you paid for. A company that delivers something else will be found out. Also, people will be able to travel abroad to start pregnancies. Though a government could test babies on return to see if they contain prohibited genetic sequences.

Keep in mind that there is not one world government (yet). So there will not be a single regulatory regime as to what is allowable to genetically engineer into humans. This fact means that genetic engineering might cause humans to evolutionarily diverge even faster than they already are evolving away from each other.

M, Kelly Parks,

I tend to think of totalitarian regimes as deserving the modifier "leftist" only if their ideological justification is socialist equality. But not all totalitarian regimes are leftist or rightist. Some are simply the result of some individual or group's desire to totally dominate in order to stay in control.

Now, is socialist theory necessary in order to create a totalitarian regime? I don't think so. Saddam Hussein admired and copied Stalin. But he didn't need much socialist ideology. Fear was very effective for him. Though maybe some populations are more easily ruled by totalitarian regimes that offer the socialist justification.

James Bowery said at September 20, 2008 1:33 PM:

There are two issues being conflated here:

1) Is it practical for rational actors to come up with a rational civic order through dialog -- or must one assume that rationality plays a minor part in the evolution of civic order -- that even though it is artificial it may be no more controllable than ecological disasters resulting from unintended consequences?

2) To the extent that we can pretend we as rational actors will influence the civic order, what is a rational civic order?

I'll answer the first by saying simply that we've already answered this implicitly by engaging in dialog at all.

I'll answer the second by narrowing it.

Here’s the problem:

Ecological effects demand that, depending on their range, territorial separation is required.

In the case of something like how you paint the color of your living room, most people would agree that neighbors can disagree without significant ecological effects on each other and nearly all of those would agree that even if the range did extend across the fence to the neighbor’s house, the ecological impact would be benign.

However, when something like global warming is explained by something like CO2 emissions, and you have countries like China where they are desperate for economic development with low risk ROI using coal, the fuzziness of ecological causality creates a conundrum wherein poorly validated models of ecological causality (or, oppositely, acausality) meet desires for global domination by elites who are morally certain their ecological models are right.

In between we have all manner of public policies.

So the question becomes simply this: What are the ethics of territorial allocation and migration such that those who have differing ecological hypotheses can actually live their strongly held beliefs with minimum negative impact on others who do not share their beliefs?

K said at September 20, 2008 2:23 PM:


You first paragraph accidentally confirms my point. You have a faith that: "We have too open a society and too many medical and scientific experts with strong motives to blow the whistle that the idea that companies are selling millions of worthless flu shots (or shots that did something else entirely) in the United States seems extremely implausible."

I didn't say any of those things were true today in Arizona. We are talking about the future. And I pointed out that people increasingly rely upon what they are told by trained people who in turn are licensed and regulated by government. Who really has a choice?

As quasi-agents of government the medical personnel you hire or encounter will not always act in (what you believe to be) your interests. Indeed they legally cannot. And they must report suspicions to the police. Most of those suspicions involve exotic or sexually transmitted diseases, gun shot wounds, child abuse, etc. But it is only a list, items can be added.

As for verification after birth. That might be possible but what then is your recourse? Right! You have to ask the courts, themselves agents of government, for recourse. So you can only appeal to the government that disregarded and overruled your wishes to begin with.

Consider your own words: "Also, people will be able to travel abroad to start pregnancies. Though a government could test babies on return to see if they contain prohibited genetic sequences.

And what would be done about those prohibited genetic sequences? Should the state force treatments to alter them?

Another topic,

The terms authoritarian and totalitarian are useful distinctions. An authoritarian regime has little or no philosophical view except unlimited rule. The method is force. Totalitarian rule adds the concept of good and evil; the state is good and dissent therefore is evil.

TTT said at September 20, 2008 4:56 PM:

If conservatives are afraid of spiders, why are they more likely to :

Go hunting?
Join the military?

This is yet another report from jealous, insecure leftists that a frustrated that pro-US people are smarter, wealthier, and better looking that leftists are.

Right wing people earn more money than left-wing people.

Randall Parker said at September 20, 2008 7:16 PM:


Reputation matters. Your recourse upon discovering you've been deceived includes telling others. Visible members of communities have an especially powerful ability to publicize, for example, a fraudulent embryo genetic engineering treatment.

I understand that medical personnel will not always act in my interest. This is true even if they are not regulated by the government. Doctors will, for example, recommend treatments that earn them more money.

Reliance on the work of trained people: I do that when I get into a car or airplane or walk across a bridge. I'm relying on the performance of various trained people that overwhelmingly I do not know. This would be true even if all government safety regulation agencies were abolished.

Enforcement against prohibited genetic treatments: The debate will be similar to debates against all violations of laws and regulations. My guess is there'll be a range of punishments based on jurisdiction (not all governments will punish as severely) and which particular violation is discovered. For example, one could imagine that certain personality alterations will be considered a greater threat than other personality alterations.

HellKaiserRyo said at September 21, 2008 12:16 AM:

How will anyone prevent people from genetically engineering tyrants such as Kahn Noonien Singh? I wonder how will that be prevented in the laissez-faire world.

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