We tend to give a lot of credit to our decision-making abilities, especially in politics. We like to think that whichever political candidate we are voting for, or whichever political party we are endorsing, we came to that decision all on our own.
What if I tell you that this might not be true at all? What if all of our political choices are predetermined, and we just don’t know it?
It’s starting to sound a bit like I’m promoting a deep-state conspiracy theory. Rest assured, this will not be that kind of an article. The potential mastermind behind our political decisions that I’m trying to shed a light on is our biology as opposed to a mind-controlling shadow government.
The idea that our biology can affect how we lean politically is actually not that hard to wrap your head around. For example, we can often guess someone’s political belief based on their parents and vice versa. This correlation between parents and children is not an unfamiliar one to us. In fact, it’s so well-established that we sometimes treat it as common sense.
Besides the influence of upbringing, education, and home environment, when we talk about parent-child correlations, of course, genetics comes to mind. If we can “inherit” our parents’ political views, the correlation can be easily explained, right?
As a matter of fact, scientists did find evidence that genetics can play a role in determining your politics. You might wonder: “How would we test if genetics have an effect on politics? Wouldn’t they need to compare a pair of the same genome to see if they turn out to be different? Aren’t everybody’s genes unique to themselves?” And you would be right. While the human genome only possesses a small portion of variation between individuals (0.001 percent!), that slight variation makes you totally unique and incomparable to other people. To overcome the infinite variations between people, scientists needed to find two people who have identical genomes.
This leads us to the famous twin study. Researchers compared the political attitude correlations between identical twins and non-identical twins to control for the environmental factors and how the subjects are raised. The result showed a stronger correlation between identical twins who have the same genomes, compared to non-identical twins who have different genomes. While researchers haven’t quite figured out how genetics affects political attitudes, the twin study clearly showed that politics are inheritable to a certain extent.
Even though scientists couldn’t figure it out just yet, it doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate the pathway of how genetics might determine our politics. We know that our DNA affects how our body grows and develops. Could it be possible then that genetics affect how we think politically through shaping our brain structure?
Let’s put our eyes on another study focusing on brain structure.
The study focused on assessing the size of brain structures in liberals and conservatives. Researchers used MRI to detect the volume of gray matters in different areas of the subjects’ brains.
The finding gave us a satisfying result. It turns out, two parts of our brain are found to be strongly associated with whether the subject is liberal or conservative: People who are more liberal have relatively larger Anterior Cingulate, which is responsible for monitoring conflicts and changes, while more conservative people have larger Right Amygdala, which is the center of processing fear and disgust.
The researchers could predict a person’s political attitudes by scanning their brain with an almost 75% accuracy using this finding!
Great! Brain structures do have an effect on our political views! Did we just solve the mystery of genetics and politics? I would love to say so, but the human brain is a tricky thing.
Genetics do contribute to how it develops to a certain extent. Still, at the same time, many environmental factors can alter our brain development, including sensory and motor experience, parent-child relationships, play, stress, hormones, and psychoactive drugs. Naturally, different people exposed to various life events would think differently and have varying brain developments.
Wait a second. If how we think can determine our political attitudes after all, wouldn’t we still be in charge of our own political choices? The truth is, you might not be as in control as you might think in terms of the way you process your thoughts, especially when it comes to politics.
Another study has shown that brain activities during risk-taking satiations can also predict people’s political attitudes with even higher accuracy (83%). Researchers found that Democrats are engaging more in their Left Posterior Insula when performing a risk-taking task, which is associated with introspective perceptions. Republicans, however, have more brain activities in the Right Amygdala, which is associated with processing external cues and fear, even when their choices during the task are the same!
In other words, people with different political attitudes are likely to subconsciously process information differently by using different parts of their brain. You might think you are making a political decision based on your free will. In fact, your brain has already been wired to process information a certain way.
From the moment we are born, genetics has potentially already decided a portion of what shapes our political beliefs. Our brain is then also developed and predetermined to think in a particular fashion based on our experiences and the environment we live in. That is kind of bleak, isn’t it? Does nothing matter when it comes to people’s political attitudes?
The truth depends on how you look at it. While one can certainly approach these scientific findings by concluding that free will is a lie, we can also look at it like this: everything we have done, encountered, or experienced has led to where we are today, including our political standings.
The good news is, we all have neuroplasticity! Our brain’s ability to rewire its pathways and structures exists all the way until we reach senescence! So, while a sudden change of political views is hard to achieve, growth (of your brain!) can happen to just about anybody.