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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Genes and political orientation

Never known why you were so inclined to liking those red state Republicans or those blue state Democrats? Well, the answer could be in your genes.

UC San Diego researchers recently analyzed the social lives and genetics of college-aged students. They found that people might be pre-disposed to being liberal as a result of DRD4 – a gene associated with dopamine reception.

Lead researcher James Fowler, professor of political science and genetics at UCSD and Jaime Settle, a graduate student at UCSD, used a 2,574 person sample collected by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to see how political ideology might be affected by genetics and social environment. They looked at the number of friendships a person had and that person’s political point of view.

The project was a way to bring social science and genetics together. The UCSD team compared the data on friendships to the presence of DRD4. They found that people who had this certain variant of the DRD4 gene, along with an active social life, were more prone to be liberal.

The researchers looked at political ideology on a scale from very conservative to very liberal. People who had exposure to this “liberal gene” variant, were 40 percent more likely to move into a more liberal category – if you are a moderate liberal who has the alleles, you could be moved as much as 40 percent closer to the liberal side of the scale.

The recently published study states that the gene alone cannot be single-handedly responsible for determining a person’s political orientation. Political orientation is heavily influenced by the number of friendships a person has, thus proving how essential friendships are when it comes to a social context.

“This study reminds us that people should try to be more tolerant and agreeing about understanding other peoples’ views on politics,” Settle said. “We need to understand where the other person is coming from – that their ideology is a combination of genes and their environment.”

Some are skeptical of the team’s early results.

Dean Keith Simonton, a distinguished professor of political psychology, states that there is no “liberal gene,” but there are other factors that influence political orientation.

“There are a number of cognitive and personality traits that are associated with liberal political beliefs,” Simonton said.

Simonton acknowledged that while personality traits do seem heritable, there is no question that environmental factors also play a role in political orientation.

“Certain experiences at home and school will increase or decrease any tendencies toward conservative or liberal viewpoints. Where a person stands politically will thus be a joint function of both nature and nurture,” Simonton said.

Simonton said people often become more liberal during college as they begin to associate with new people with different viewpoints; meanwhile people who are more conservative often continue associating with their close network of like-minded friends from high school.

Mark Bahl, president of the Davis College Republicans, said he is very skeptical of any “liberal” gene. He believes upbringing is the major influence in a person’s political orientation.

“If that [liberal gene] was the case, then individuals wouldn’t change over time – such as my dad’s friend, who was very liberal growing up, and is now very conservative,” Bahl said. “I feel that people are raised and adopt beliefs of their own.”

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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