Is Political Philosophy Biologically Determined?

The national obsession in the United States isn't football, or money, or even sex. It's politics. And we form our judgments entirely on the basis of critical assessment of candidates and political philosophies, free of any internal bias that is beyond our control.

Well, maybe not.

New research suggests there may be a biological reason why some folks turn left while others turn right. Maybe liberals and conservatives literally can't quite see eye to eye.

A provocative new study out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests we may not be as open-minded as we think, and it's all because of biology. Finding a biological basis for everything from believing in God to picking a mate is all the rage these days, but this study explores new territory.

"It's well established in almost any scientific discipline that there are biological influences on behavior," Mike Dodd, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview. "But political scientists have been kind of resistant to that because they like to think that political temperament is entirely environmentally determined. It's based on your experience."

Researchers Look for Biological Component Behind Political Temperament

That attitude doesn't necessarily apply to Dodd's coauthors, John R. Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith, political science professors at the university who have been searching for some time now for evidence that there is a biological component to formulating our "political temperament."

And the three believe they have found something that literally separates liberals from conservatives. These opposite ends of the political spectrum respond differently to something called "gaze cues," the shifting of a person's attention from one place to another in an attempt to see where another person is looking.

What they have found so far is liberals are easily distracted when a face on a computer screen shows a person looking one way or the other. The liberal will mimic the face's action, looking in the same direction as the face. That's called following a "gaze-cue." Conservatives were far more likely to remain fixed on the eyes of the face, less distracted.

Why? Well, this gets a little debatable. In their study, to be published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, the researchers offer these assumptions:

Conservatives "tend to be more supportive of individualism, and less likely to be influenced by others, than those on the left." They value "personal autonomy."

Liberals, on the other hand, "are often thought of as more empathetic and more concerned with the welfare of others relative to conservatives, meaning that liberals may be more susceptible to the influence of social cues."

That stops short of saying conservatives are tough minded and liberals are wishy-washy. So the assumptions may not please everyone. But the research is intriguing.

Liberals Follow Gaze Of Another, Conservatives More Likely to Remain Fixed, Study Says

The researchers recruited 72 students at the University of Nebraska, who were not informed of the purpose of the experiment. The participants (44 females and 28 males) were instructed to focus on a face on a computer screen and attempt to find a "target" (a black ball,) as soon as it appeared elsewhere on the screen.

The face had eyes, without pupils, when it first appeared, but pupils were added moments later, looking either to the right or the left. However, the participants were told to ignore where the face was looking, because it had nothing to do with the location of the target.

The researchers measured the time, in milliseconds, it took each participant to find the target each time it appeared during a course of 240 trials. But about half the time the face was sending the wrong message, looking to the right, for example, when the target actually appeared on the left. If the participant was influenced by the cue, it would take a few milliseconds longer to find the target if the face was looking in the wrong direction.

"It will make you faster when the target appears in a valid location, and slower when it appears in an invalid location because your attention is on the other side of the screen," Dodd said.

The participants were asked to fill out a couple of forms asking questions on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and so forth. They were also asked if they considered themselves liberal or conservative.

The 72 participants were divided into two groups, those who leaned most toward the liberal spectrum, and those who leaned most toward the conservative. So the grouping was relative to each other, not necessarily relative to the rest of the country. What passes for a liberal in Nebraska, however, might not pass as a liberal in New York City.

But the results were dramatic, Dodd said. The liberals were far more likely to follow the cue than the conservatives.

The findings will need to be replicated by others to be taken too seriously, and Dodd cautions against getting carried away with fears that our politics are dictated by our biology.

"You have to think that biological input is not necessarily a key determinant, but something that could interact at various times," Dodd said. "We are trying to avoid the biological determinist view. We're not saying this is all biology, or this is all genetics. We're looking at potential components."

Are Liberals and Conservatives Biologically Different?

It would be helpful if there were other studies by other researchers, but the closest one I could find was a study out of Duke University Medical Center four years ago. It involved monkeys.

The Duke researchers found that when high-ranking monkeys were shown images of other monkeys glancing one way of the other, they quickly followed the gaze of other high-ranking monkeys. But they tended to ignore the gaze of low-status monkeys, while low-status monkeys assiduously followed the gaze of all other monkeys.

The political philosophy of the monkeys was not determined.