Blue Genes (or Red)

Are liberal/conservative political beliefs heritable?

On Monday, I wrote a column about “neuropunditry,” a new trend in campaign journalism. Basically, it is the idea that scientists (and campaign strategists) can use brain-imaging techniques to find out how voters truly feel about candidates by looking past the rational, but often misleading, answers they give pollsters.

The technology is actually quite interesting, and potentially useful despite its many limitations, but marketing firms have exaggerated its ability to deliver specific and applicable insights into voter behavior in a couple of recent op-eds. Those misleading columns notwithstanding, there have been a number of more responsible news articles about neuroimaging and voters’ predominantly emotional behavior. I overlooked one of these in my earlier post, which merits a belated mention.

The cover story in last week’s issue of New Scientist is about another field of scientific research that is seeking a more objective gauge of voter behavior and psychology than traditional polling. This research is trying to unlock electoral secrets with genetics rather than neurology, and the article’s headline reads, “Two tribes: Are your genes liberal or conservative?” Headlines like this bug me because the editors at New Scientist know very well that the only blue “genes” out there-cheesy pun intended-are the ones you put on one leg at a time. But the article itself states as much, resists the temptation to stretch the science too far, and explicitly owns up to the fact that the link between chromosomes and ballots is quite indirect:

The point is that certain genes shape personality traits, and these are linked to political opinion…

Combine the genetic influences on personality with the political tendencies of different personality types, and the idea that genetics shapes political tendencies seems very plausible indeed.

The article cites a couple of recent studies that support the idea that “Dogmatic types were also more conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences tended to be liberals.” A 2007 paper “speculated” that because the gene D4DR is involved in regulating the neurotransmitter dopamine, high levels of which are known to cause obsessive-compulsive disorder, dopamine might be linked to a “need to impose order on the world.” If so, the author of that paper hypothesized, variants of D4DR should be found more frequently in conservatives. The hypothesis needs to be tested, of course, and the article points out that such premises are already receiving support from some of the brain-imaging studies that came up in my column on Monday.

New Scientist mentions a New York University study, in particular, which found that conservatives have more difficulty changing their minds than liberals, and which I cited as having provoked some of the more responsible reporting about the uses and limitations of imaging. The magazine then goes on to discuss the backlash against the trend in neuropunditry (including the veiled marketing in recent op-ed columns), which has made it more difficult for scientists to publicize more general aspects of their research.

“Even without a detailed understanding of the genes involved, these studies could influence real world politics,” the article reads. But it also asserts that, “Of the researchers that New Scientist spoke to, none said that professional politicians had expressed an interest in their work.”

That could change, however. An article from The Wall Street Journal in December, written before Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race, proclaimed the advent of neuroscience in electoral politics: “Campaign-strategy consultant, TargetPoint, which is working for Mr. Romney, has begun running Internet surveys that test voters’ subconscious impressions and is considering conducting research with brain scanners.”

That said, New Scientist is completely accurate in its report that “there is no shortage of critics who question the whole idea of linking politics to with biology,” and happily so. Maybe the takeaway for journalists here is that there is also no shortage of campaign strategists looking for any kind of competitive advantage, and no shortage of marketing firms willing to promise as much.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.