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September 18th, 2008
03:15 PM ET

Political attitudes predicted by physiological traits?

By Danielle Dellorto
CNN Medical Producer

The differences between Democrats and Republicans may form well before you’re able to vote. In fact, you may actually be born with your conservative and liberal views.

Political science researchers at Rice University in Texas studied 46 adults with strong political beliefs. They split them up in two groups, based on their leanings, and tested their physiological reactions to threatening and non-threatening images. How hard they blinked, their anxiety level, among other physical responses were charted as images of bloody faces and bunny rabbits came across the screen.

Perhaps not surprising, the groups’ reactions were divided. “The responses between the two groups were substantially different,” notes study author James Alford, a professor of political science at Rice. “There was very little overlap between them.”

The participants with traditional conservative views - supportive of the Iraq war, death penalty, immigration reform and The Patriot Act - had strong physical reactions to the threatening images of spiders and calm reactions to the non-threatening images of bunnies and happy children.

Those with more liberal views - low support of Iraq war and higher support of gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights - showed no differences in reaction when viewing the threatening and non-threatening images. They appeared to physically react to the same to an image of a bowl of fruit and one of an open war wound.

Fascinated by the clear differences in the results, Rice University researchers believe this study, while small, is proof that our political views, in part, are genetically instilled in us.

“We estimate your biological makeup has a 30 to 40 percent role in how you will vote,” says Alford. “The other portion is how and where you were raised as well as environmental factors”

But Alford notes that just because the reaction to threatening images may not be instant for some people, it doesn’t mean we all won’t come to the same conclusion eventually.

"This sheds a small window into part of what motivates political differences in humans are biological differences in humans,” he says. “Biological reasons don’t drive everything, but do deserve equal place at the table."

So what do you think? Do your genetics play a role in which way you vote?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (92 Responses)
  1. Vicki Davison

    It may be related to the size or effectiveness of the amygdala which is the part of the brain that processes the "fight or flight" reflex, which would be genetic. Or it could be familial, If one is raised in an authoritarian fashion he/she would tend to be more republican.

    September 19, 2008 at 05:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Fred

    I believe that we only inherit basic traits from our parents genes. Say how empathic you are, etc.. How these traits shape our political attitudes depend on the upbringing we get from our parents, the invironment in which we grow up (Our school, our friends, our colleagues), and the experiences we make in life.

    One can argue that the upbringing by our parents is also an inherited part that shape your political views. However, I think it's important to distinguish between what is given to you by birth, and what is given to you in life. The subject then, opens towards researching how twins shape their political view. Given that one or both were removed at birth and grew up in another environment.

    It is, as Dave puts it, a fascinating study.

    September 19, 2008 at 05:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. grace

    Regarding this statement:

    "Rice University researchers believe this study, while small, is proof that our political views, in part, are genetically instilled in us."

    Actually, it is a leap to go from physical response to genetics. Just because something is physical doesn't make it genetic. Think about the physical responses people have in post-traumatic stress disorder. That is brought on by an experience, though genetics might play a role in who is more susceptible.

    September 19, 2008 at 06:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. David Johnson

    I have two sons, both of whom I have said for years were "born" their political view; one is 90% Republican and the other is 90% Democrat. Both listen and debate both sides well and can generally live with some compromise, but are on totally opposite sides in general. Born politics is real in my family.

    September 19, 2008 at 06:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. GIFTY

    Get rid of Dems Philosophy now and do-nothing but lies attitude. Put someone like John/Palin who will be there to fight for you future.

    John/Sara 08

    September 19, 2008 at 06:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Joe

    Testing of twins separated after birth and raised in different environments supports this thesis.

    Then again, I am genetically open minded.

    September 19, 2008 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. John F

    I am not convinced that these reactions are genetic in origin. I believe that strong reactions to things like spiders are largely learned behaviours that children pick up from parents, other carers and peers. That's why I try to keep my cool around my kids when a wasp turns up. I don't want them freaking out like I tend to! And I have tried to teach them that spiders are fine, as they eat flies, and therefore should not be stamped. By the way, we have no poisonous spiders here in the UK!

    September 19, 2008 at 07:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Wade, M.D., Tampa, FL

    I'd have to read the entire study to form an opinion; however, we must accept that environment is also involved. How many of the participants have parents who also react similarly? These could be learned traits.

    September 19, 2008 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jason

    Wasn't it Richard Dawkins who wrote about "the selfish gene?"

    I think selfish and/or ignorant people are more drawn towards the conservative crowd. Remarkable unselfish people can be too, as long as they are ignorant enough to be fooled into believing the conservatives are the generous ones.

    I suppose that is the root factor: are you ignorant enough to be fooled easily. If so, you are very likely to be a conservative – and if not, but you happen to be very selfish, you are still likely to become a conservative.

    If any of this is genetic, then sure...

    September 19, 2008 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jerry Lemieux

    Just reinforces what I've suspected all along. Liberals don't recognize a threat until it is too late. Just look at Europe as Hitler's power became a growing threat. I think this has to do with intelligence. Liberals are too stupid to know the difference between a threat and a non-threat.

    September 19, 2008 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Yenisa Tucker

    Hi, the study was great. but all of us know that the political game is allways based on genetics and how everyone is rasied thats why they have thease studies so they know how to talk to curtain populations. Genetics, up bringings , social statis, financial statis, religion, race, gender, educational statis, of course poloticians have to know all of this why because all of the elements I mentioned have great impact in how we view things and eventually in how we vote.

    September 19, 2008 at 08:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Don

    This is a very interesting, though highly preliminary, study, and I tend to agree with it.

    During my college years, I was rather liberal. However, I think it is the fact that I perceive much of the world as a dangerous and threatening place that has made me much more conservative later in life. I have come to see "liberal America" as being out of touch with the basic realities of the world and the physical threats that face our society.

    My problem with the study is that I don't see how the different reactions are biological or genetic. Those reactions could be learned from life experiences without any biological component.

    September 19, 2008 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jane

    Don't buy that. People change their political views on a regular basis – I think it has more to do with personal growth, getting informed, regional needs, etc.

    Politics is simply the tool to negotiate responsibilities between individuals and the society that they agree to belong to.

    My opinion is that it has nothing to do with genetics.

    I think they are overlooking the level of influence that your family will have on instilling your value systems as a child. A lot of those values will stay with you all your life (which can have a negative or positive affect on you, depending on the circumstances). But I believe it's a learned behavior, not a biological difference.

    September 19, 2008 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Diana

    I don't know.........its like I am and independent but mostly vote republican.............my brother 14 months older usually votes democrat.....my father was independent but usually voted republican

    September 19, 2008 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. MDavid

    As described, what this study demonstrates is a corelation between political leanings and physical reactions to certain kinds of stimulii. I don't see any indication that the physcial reactions are genetically controlled rather than learned.

    In that sense this finding is really no different from the democratic versus anti-democratic personalities that political science has been talking about for at least the last 50 years. (The first dicussions I'm aware of on the subject were post WWII.)

    I know more about political science than psychology, but my sense of it is that the democratic personality is essentially the same as Freud's oral personality and the anti-democratic personality is likewise essentially the same as Freud's anal retentive personality - which also maps well to members of the so-called conservative movement (not to be confused with people who are more traditional conservatives). What this study seems to do is no more than find an objectively measureable componant of the same split between personality types.

    September 19, 2008 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Warren Blechert

    Thanks for that compelling report about the physiological differences between Democrats and Republicans. However, I didn't quite get it all. Could you do it again and talk more slowly?

    Yours truly,
    A poor Democrat just trying to keep up with a fast-talking John McCain

    September 19, 2008 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. casey schrader

    first and foremost, i believe that if one is going to conduct a study, they should be much more thorough. showing pictures of bullet wounds and rainbows are not going to help show one's political views. video games, movies, and everything else we see in the world today desensitize people from acting rashly toward a violent act and does NOT exactly show one's political siding. Political views are gained from experience and what that particular person has been taught.
    Also, while a Liberal may be more calm wether it be a threatening or non threatening subject, opposed to a Conservative being a bit more emotional, it only further proves that it matters not on one's genetics. and if this was a matter of genetics, technically speaking, if all conservatives had the same exact views and all the Liberals had the same exact views, there would be an effect on one's outer appearance. all liberals would look at least slightly the same and so would the conservatives. but i don't know anyone who looks like me.
    and for those who believe this malarchy about politics being genetic, please reconsider what you have read about the "Research". that's like saying if you like chicken you're a democrat and if you like beef you're a conservative.

    September 19, 2008 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Richard Carlson

    This would have been an interesting study if they had stopped at just reporting the scientists' observations. But, when they tried to make the leap to genetics it made this really lousy science.

    I would suggest that ultra conservatives tend to think in "black and white" something is either all good or all all bad. Leftwingers tend to see things along a gray continuum.

    Conservatives can then take one issue and use that to generalize that something is something is good or bad. I also see republicans more attached to symbols to represent a point of view (flag, rifle etc). Thus pictures would represent reality whereas democrats would view a picture as a picture.

    September 19, 2008 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Scott M

    Seems to me evolution required both: fear based gut reactions (we need to beat up that other camp before they take our food), and more thoughtful approaches (maybe we can work together). Like our pre-programmed preference for high fat meals (never know when I will catch another gopher to eat), I think the too-scared-to-think-straight angle has served out its usefulness and hopefully will die out.

    September 20, 2008 at 00:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Claire

    This entire study and discussion are so biased that it's unclear if there is truly a genetic link or not. This seems contrived.

    I think younger people don't understand human nature and have utopian views about how the world will some day join hands and sing Kumbahya, while middle age brings with it the understanding that there are lunatics and sociopaths in the world and that has not changed over time.

    Both ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals include extremists who are pro-war, if the target is the correct group in their minds. I'm sorry, but this seems like junk science to me, and the comments are mostly just demonstrating bias, too.

    September 20, 2008 at 02:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Micki

    The only issue I have is where a smaller reaction pairs with political stance. Aren't Democrats being MORE reactionary when considering gun control?

    I agree, this may be more of a correlation of your habits due to your political stance, than an actual cause-and-effect relationship.

    September 20, 2008 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Schreiber!

    So...what about the libertarian brain?
    I really hate it when they leave the minor parties out of these studies. Does anyone know how a libertarian would react to these?

    September 21, 2008 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. J. Colby Rogers

    Alright, first things first,
    Thanks to all of those that will actually read this comment because believe it or not i have to say something important. First off anyone and i mean anyone who believes that John McCain is a good president because he "crosses party lines" or is a "maverick" I bet you half the conservatives i know couldn't even tell you what maverick means. Honestly, and the Winston Churchill quote at the top was not said by Churchill it was Putin and he didn't talk about liberals and conservatives, because when he was alive that wasn't so big. No Putin said "He who does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, he who wants it back has no brain." So there and John McCain is more of the same ™ he voted with and i mean with bush 90% of the time, and it was a blatant mistake to pick Palin, she has less and i mean less total experience than Obama does, and yet she is trying to make him look bad, Alaska is a small state and it doesn't take a genius to run anything, so look if you like the way our country is going vote for mccain, If he wins i'll be on the first train to Canada.

    September 21, 2008 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. J. Colby Rogers

    By the way Jerry Lemeuix, let me remind you that name calling is not acceptable and that it was a highly liberal president that got us through WWII okay and saved us from the great depression and although the Republicans have spent the last 30 years attempting to tear down the New Deal its the surviving programs that make sure that your money is safe from the economy that Reagan started to wreck and Bushes SR and JR are finishing, I know clinton was inbetween but guess what he was helping our economy out okay, plus have you ever been threatened? No its people like you who shoot at every shadow that help the psychopaths that Reagan put on the street get guns and kill 20 people. So don't get me started on threats buddy

    September 21, 2008 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Skye

    I, too, must disagree with this conclusion based on personal experience. I was born into, and reared in, a conservative/evangelical Christian family. Anyone who's had that experience knows that the indoctrination is pretty complete. However, left to my own devices as an adult, I've morphed into being a person who's both "green" and most decidedly a social liberal. I had a "pressure event" which forced me to choose between the values that were indoctrinated into me as a child (and thus were not truly "my own"), and striking out alone to find my own values. I chose the latter course and have never regretted it.

    September 24, 2008 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Skye

    David Cherby:

    Remember Tipper Gore? Her fellow liberals hated her when she was trying to censor records. 🙂

    Personally, I prefer blues, jazz, Celtic and world music. I don't care for violent movies, and I am annoyed by gratuitous sex. I'm not sure how much of this has to do with my being liberal, though.

    September 24, 2008 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. jack, phoenix, AZ

    I agree to an extent. I think you are a product of your environment. I was brought up in an upper middle class, white, AngloSoxon home. I went to an all white school, and was lectured on wealth and security every day. My college education was paid for with a trust fund, as were both of my children's education. I have amassed finances to propel them and my grandchildren for some time in the future. Thus, I pride myself in not being a liberal, but a very right wing conservative REpublican. But in this election, change must come. McCain is too wishwashy, liberal, and too old. Obama , while a liberal, has never tried to play both sides of the fence as McCain.

    September 24, 2008 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Chris

    Only 46 subjects in the study–much too small a sample for such assumptions, in addition to the questions raised by others about the value of the study.

    Conclusions don't fit me either –scared to death of airplanes (but not of spiders) and I was the only one in college audience to cry at a nuclear doomsday drama; yet I vote for Democrats 99% of the time.

    September 28, 2008 at 23:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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