What Biology Says About Your Politics

Two articles that deal with one’s political views and biology.  The first was comes from Ted.com  and features psychologist Jonathan Haidt who spoke on The real difference between liberals and conservatives.   Haidt identified five primary categories of moral values:  1) Harm/Care  (includes compassion),  2)Fairness/Reciprocity, 3)In-group/Loyalty, 4) Authority/Respect, 5) Purity/Sanctity.   He then looked at studies which show which of these values  those who are socially/morally liberal or conservative honor the most.  Interestingly cross cultural studies throughout the world show the same basic patterns.   Both liberals and conservatives highly value the same ideals surrounding Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity.  These items might be somehow basic human values – the values which have allowed humans to socialize and form cities and nations.  But conservatives much more highly value Loyalty, Authority and Purity than do liberals. 

Haidt says that change and progress – which require paying less honor to loyalty, authority and purity – are driven by people who have a different set of values.   He uses the information to say that instead of liberals and conservatives seeing each other in an adversarial fashion, they might come to see the value in what they each contribute to society and to being human.  Liberals drive change, improvement, technology because they feel less loyalty to what is, to who is in power, to what others consider good or valuable.  Conservatives work to keep humanity together by defining limits of acceptability.  Both contribute to us being more human and better social beings.

As one small aside –  though social conservatives much more highly value purity than do liberals, Haidt notes that while this may be true when it comes to sex, contemporary liberals have come to form their own sense of purity – what we put in out bodies (right foods, drinks, etc) and liberals can be extremely puritanical when it comes to politically correct foods and drink.

 The second article connecting politics and biology was aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition 19 September 2008:  Could Political Views be Driven by Biology?    In a study done of people with strong political convictions, University of Nebraska researcher John Hibbing said his team could quite accurately predict political affiliation by the way people reacted to alarming images and sounds.  Conservatives reacted more strongly to threats than did liberals.  Interpreting the data proves a bit trickier.  The transcript of the audio article reads:

Hibbing and his colleagues found that they could predict what a person’s political beliefs would be based on how strongly the person’s body responded to the alarming images and sounds, according to a report in the journal Science.

“Those people who seemed to have a stronger reaction to threat were more likely to favor things like military spending, the death penalty, the Patriot Act,” says Hibbing.

He doesn’t think this study means that conservatives are essentially scaredy-cats.

“I think it’s just as easy to say that liberals are naive, and they don’t get it. They don’t understand it’s a dangerous world,” Hibbing says.

5 thoughts on “What Biology Says About Your Politics

  1. Did you ever do Haigt’s tests?

    I did, and I think his conclusions are highly suspect, and not warranted by the data. It is a highly secularised view of morality.

    Based on the actual questions asked in the tests, I think a more valid conclusion might be that conservatives would be more likely to support totalitarian governments, like those of Stalin and Hitler, and that if respect for authority and loyalty overrode the inhibition against doing harm, they would be quite likely to think that massacring opponents of the government was OK. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed that.

    Fr Alexander Schmemann pointed out that obedience in itself is not a virtue. Adolf Eichmann claimed as a defence that he was “obeying orders” when he sent a million people to their deaths. Obedience inj love is a virtue, but Haigt paid not attention to love as a source or foundation of moral virtue. I therefore suspect that his whole research project is dangerously anti-Christian.

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