Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?
For years, researchers have debated the significance of early childhood versus adult experiences in the formation of a person’s political beliefs, but have primarily dismissed the possible role genetics might play.
A 2005 study published in the American Political Science Review, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” (PDF), uses data from existing social science studies involving more than 10,000 sets of identical and non-identical twins from 1980 to 1994 to determine the correlation between genetics and political orientation. Subjects were scored on the basis of their reactions to 28 short phrases with explicit or implicit social and political biases such as ‘death penalty’, ‘abortion,’ or ‘nudist camps.’ Researchers also considered additional variables such as whether each set of twins shared the same environmental conditions.
Key study findings include:
- “Shared influences (genetic and environmental) account for about half of the variation in these political reactions, with unique individual and environmental factors accounting for the remainder.”
- The influence of heredity on social orientation for identical twins exceeds that of environmental factors for every phrase response; this alignment trumps the correlation scores of non-identical twins and all types of twin pairs raised in different environments.
- The phrases that elicited the highest levels of hereditary-based correlation were “school prayer,” “property tax,” “Moral Majority,” “capitalism” and “astrology.”
- The impact of shared environment exceeded that of hereditability in 4 of the 28 test phrases — “living together,” “gay rights,” “abortion” and “liberals.”
- The political attitudes of twins are not determined by the views of their parents; when researchers controlled for parental views, there was no significant difference in the level to which identical twins would still agree with one another.
- However, while respondents’ attitudes correlated strongly with heredity, their party affiliations correlated more strongly with environmental factors: “Clearly, party identification is, at least for the United States, a different sort of beast than reactions to issue items.”
The authors conclude: “Why do social, more than economic, issues tend to hit people in the gut, even though both constitute ongoing and equally complex societal concerns? In light of the new findings, one distinct possibility is that easy ‘gut’ issues tend to be those that are more hereditable.”
Tags: science, elections
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the American Political Science Review study titled "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?"
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related New York Times article titled "Some Politics May be Etched in the Genes."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.