Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Biological basis for political orientation

This study was published in 2005, but I keep bringing it up to people, because it's one of the coolest studies I've ever seen. Researchers went to a preschool and gave a personality inventory to 128 3-year-olds. 20 years later, they found 104 of the kids and gave them another personality inventory and several sets of questions designed to ascertain political orientation.

People testing as liberals at 23

In preschool impressed evaluators as
Resourceful and initializing, autonomous, proud of their blossoming achievements, confident and self-involving
High in self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, openness in expressing negative feelings and in teasing, bright, competitive, having high standards
Age 23 impressed evaluators as
Bright, with wide and complex interests and tend toward nonconformity
Introspective, life contemplative, aesthetically responsive, bright, complicating of the simple, with side interests and relatively nonconforming; Intelligence tends to be directed inward, complicating and deepening their existential understandings of life
Vital, motivationally aware, perceptive, fluent, bright, with extensive and aesthetic interests, somewhat non-conforming Intelligence seems directed toward social engagement and escaping from passivity

People testing as conservatives at 23

In preschool impressed evaluators as
Visibly deviant, feeling unworthy and therefore ready to feel guilty, easily offended, anxious when confronted with uncertainties, distrustful of others, ruminative, and rigidifying under stress
Indecisive and vacillating, easily victimized, inhibited, fearful, self-unrevealing, adult-seeking, shy, neat, compliant, anxious when confronted by ambiguity,  and fearful.
Age 23 impressed evaluators as
Conservative, uneasy with uncertainty or ambiguity, conventional, sex-typed in their personal behavior and in their social perceptions, moralistic
Perhaps as a function of self-ascribed conceptions of masculinity, are oriented more toward issues of possessing potency; they tend to compare self with others, make moral judgments, and offer unrequested advice
Emotionally bland, appearing calm and candid;
Appear to lean heavily on societal proprieties as guides to behavior.

So what are the implications of this? An obvious one is that political orientation is probably biologically determined. Some combination of genetics, epigenetics, and accidentally created synapses makes people what they are politically.

This means you can't hold being conservative against someone, any more than you can hold it against them that they are gay, or left-handed, or autistic, or bi-polar, or stupid. It doesn't mean you have to let them make public policy, but you can't hold it against them personally. You can hold individual acts like voting for George Bush against them, because that indicates a character fault, but not conservatism per se.

It also means I can't be proud of being liberal and having found the right answer, because my liberalism is as biologically determined as their conservatism. Given the structure of my brain and the particular details of the electro-chemical mush in it, I could not be conservative, or religious, or gay, or green-eyed, or left-handed. I'm as much of an accident as anyone.

An implication of the fact that it is biological is that it is evolutionarily beneficial to humankind to have both conservatives and liberals, just as evolutionary benefits have been proposed for having a few gays (this is cool, but I don't remember where I read it; I'll have to find it and post about it), believers in gods, and autists, or they would have died out. For example, being fearful of strangers may lead to hanging back and not being killed when the new neighbors attack, or it might lead to looking around at the edge of the forest a lot, giving early warning of the tiger stalking the group.

But since we in ECE value self-reliance and curiosity, our basic goal in child care is to turn kids into liberals. We can't say that out loud or in public, but it's true. In trying to turn whiney little kids into confident adults, we're in effect trying to build enough liberal synapses to overcome their genetic conservatism.

I wonder if this has implications for political strategies.

I imagine it means gene therapy could one day cure conservatism (as it could one day cure religiosity and extreme aggression), but that way lies madness, and totalitarianism, and, if the evolutionary argument is right, danger to the species. We need some down-to-earth conservatives around to keep us airy-fairy liberals from getting killed by the commies across the border.

For now I'll settle for knowing this is another area of personality people have little or no control over.


  1. I guess science has finally proved once and for all that one political philosophy is better than another!

  2. Thank you scientists for using science to conclusively associate unfavorable attributes with conservatives! Now our contempt for them has an even stronger foundation.

    And mad props to CDRealist for suggesting that we can may someday hope to create a politically pure strain of mankind.

  3. As I look at it again, the link is there in both of them, but it doesn't change color or underline. I don't know why not.