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Two obviously wrong statements about personality and political ideology

April 13, 2012

On the heels of yesterday’s post about the link between religiosity and conservatism, I came across a New York Magazine article discussing recent research on personality, genetics, and political ideology. The article summarizes a lot of really interesting work by John Jost on ideology, Jonathan Haidt on moral foundations, David Pizarro on emotional responses and politics, etc. etc. But when it says things like…

Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies.

… I just cringe. Research on personality and genetics does not support the conclusion that ideology is hard-wired, any more than our work on how political discourse ties religiosity to politics shows that ideology is a blank-slate social artifact.

Any attempt to understand the role of personality and genetics in political attitudes and ideology will have to avoid endorsing 2 obviously wrong conclusions:

1. Ideology and political attitudes have nothing to do with personality or genes.

2. Genes code for ideology and political attitudes in a clear, unconditional way.

Maybe in some distal and complex way our genes code for variations in how different psychological response systems work — under what conditions they are more and less active, how sensitive they are to various inputs, how strongly they produce their various responses, etc. In situ, these individual differences are going to interact with things like how messages are framed, how they are presented in conjunction with other information and stimuli, who is presenting the information, what we think the leaders and fellow members of our important social groups think and feel, etc.

What this interactivity means for doing science is that if you hold one thing constant (whether by experimental control or by averaging over differences) and let the other one vary, you will find an effect of the one you let vary. For example, if you look at how different people respond to the same set of sociopolitical issues, you are going to get reliable patterns of different responses that reflect people’s personalities. And if you frame and present the same issue in several different ways, and measure the average effect of the different framings, you are going to get different average responses that reflect message effects. Both are interesting experimental results, but both are testing only pieces of a plausible theoretical model.

Most researchers know this, I think. For example, from the NYMag article:

Fowler laughs at the idea that he had isolated a single gene responsible for liberalism—an idea circulated in much of the chatter about the study. “There are hundreds if not thousands of genes that are all interacting to affect complex social behaviors,” Fowler says, and scientists have only a rough sense of that process. “There’s a really long, complex causal chain at work here,” says UC-Berkeley political scientist Laura Stoker, “and we won’t get any real understanding without hundreds and hundreds of years’ more research.”

Let’s stay away from lazy and boring concepts like hard-wired. The real answers are going to be a lot more interesting.

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