Thursday, September 5, 2013

Political affiliation: a biological approach


This article relies heavily on several studies I have heard of through media and through Robert Sapolsky's course of Human Behavioral Biology at Stanford University. Due to the amount of research required to source all material and the scope of this personal blog, it would be unreasonable to spend 10 hours on research alone. Therefore, when I mention studies, I'll only commit them from memory: sorry for the missing references! Only if I receive comments will it become reasonable to do my bit of searching.


Assuming that our political opinions are only dependent on biological aspects of our bodies and brains would be unwise. Our political views depend a lot of our life experiences and the information we're exposed to. But to the extent that most people live the same kind of lives with a 9-5 job, a spouse, picking groceries at the supermarket and getting information through TV or internet, what makes us more receptive to the message and policies of either left wing or right wing politics?

We know that our bodies influence our thoughts. Take a pill of this or that medicine and it will make you joyful, optimistic and open to new ideas even crazy ones. Take another pill and it will make you anxious, resistant to change and aggressive. Psychologists have also shown that if you try to flush your violence by punching a pillow, it will in fact raise your aggressiveness and lower your forgiveness. So in contrast with the 1st sentence of this article, leaving aside the biological influences on our opinions would be unreasonable. That's why I will focus today on the relationship between biology and political opinions.

Current knowledge

For the sake of clarity of this article, I will consider politics as bipolar consisting only of left-wing liberal progressives and right-wing conservatives. I know that it is an inaccurate representation of politics for the many countries where parties are pushed to form alliances and where the public debate is open to more than 2 parties, but the bipolar representation is a rather accurate representation of the system in USA and I find it (maybe abusively) to reflect more or less accurately the thought process of people all over the world.

The left wing is often associated with the following ideas: progress, science, equality, environment, welfare, high tax, decadence.

The right wing is often associated with the following ideas: conservatism, traditional values, strong rule of law, big business, corruption.

Studies have shown that when we start making political decisions, we start with ideas of our own and no affiliation. For the purpose of casting our vote, we need to make a choice between voting for the left or for the right. We know that their programs, their policies, do not match 100% of our own ideas but we need to make a choice so we pick the one that most reflects our views. Then we tend to stick with whichever party we chose and rather than making up our opinions based on new information and re-evaluating how political parties fit our new opinions, we are influenced by our political affiliation to adapt our opinions to the party's official line. So much for free will!

From Sapolsky's course, we learn that political affiliation is partly inherited genetically as is confirmed by studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised separately. So, genes play a role on defining how our brains will evaluate information and reach conclusions.

It was also known that a good predictor of affiliation was the ability of a person to cope with paradoxes. People who self-identify as left-wing are more able to take into account the complexity that arises from paradoxical situations. On the other hand, people who self-identify as right-wing have a stronger sense of group unity.

Anterior cingulate is highlighted in yellow.

A 2011 study in England revealed that people who identify as left-wing have bigger brain structures known as "anterior cingulate cortex" associated with empathy and rationality. The same study found people who identified as right-wing to have bigger amygdalae, a brain structure associated with the processing of instinctive and emotional reactions like the "fight or flight" response. Even though I am torn by the apparent bias that will result from mentioning this, I think it is important to clarify that aspects of the amygdala's functionality include the sentiments of fear and anger. Because I feel these sentiments highly reflect in what politicians appeal to and the kind of messages often conveyed on subjects like racism, religious (in)tolerance, and acceptance of homosexuality.

Taking into account the scientific method, these neurological findings still need to be confirmed by a second study from an independent team of researchers. We cannot declare results as "established knowledge" after a single study. However, these results align with psychological research on empathy vs. political affiliation which also finds a higher degree of empathy (in average) among self-identified leftists.


It is not possible to emphasize enough the importance of taking these biological aspects for what they are: only one part of the equation, which does not contribute all of our political opinions but only makes it more likely for us to end up on this or that side of political affiliations. And these effects of influence can be observed on a large scale, statistically, but it is not possible to take a single individual and figure out how much his ideas were determined by biological factors.

But still, I find it interesting to see how policies and new laws are shaped by these biological factors. Yes, there is a party that is more inclined towards change and trying new things. And yes there is another party more inclined towards protecting the country from outsiders and from change itself. It is in this sense that I hope my article was insightful.

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