Political preferences reflected in physiology: study

Politics is in the blood, at least that’s what a new study examining the origins of political ideology suggests.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln measured 50 people’s physical reactions to disgusting images such as a mouth full of live worms, a bloody wound and an emaciated human body.

People who identified themselves as conservative in an earlier round of political questioning had strong physical reactions to the pictures.

The study was published this month in the Public Library of Science One, an international peer-reviewed publication.

“This is one more piece of evidence that we, quite literally, have gut feelings about politics,” said Kevin Smith, who did the research along with John Hibbing. “Our political attitudes and behaviors are reflected in our biology.”

It’s the latest in a growing body of research examining the physical links to political ideology that proponents say could diffuse political conflict.

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“It could lead to tolerance because a lot of people are simply aghast at other people’s opinions, but if they realize it wasn’t really an exercise in rationality that lead to those opinions, that people are more prone to liberalism due to biological variables, then we can be compassionate to one another,” said Edward Bell, a Canadian researcher who studies this phenomenon at the University of Western Ontario’s Brescia College.

Previous studies have suggested that conservatives have stronger fear instincts, while liberals are more flexible. A previous study by Smith suggested that identical twins are likely to share political beliefs. In 2008, researchers at the University of Nebraska found that people who were highly responsive to threatening images were likely to support defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War.

The researchers stop short of saying there is a causal relationship between politics and biology, simply that they are linked.

“The proper interpretation of the findings (in the current study) is not that biology causes politics or that politics causes biology,” they write, “but that certain political orientations at some unspecified point become housed in our biology, with meaningful political consequences.”

Bell says that knowing how biology and politics intertwine is a mystery, but it seems to play a significant role in shaping ideology.

He did a study of political views in twins and found that inheritable traits contribute to 50 per cent of the variability in political attitudes in a population.

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“It plays a role, but what that means is there is still 50 per cent left over for the environment, for education, for culture and that sort of thing,” he said.