A new Danish study has discovered that genes are at least partly responsible for shaping our opinions and may explain the wide array of political views expressed across society.
“My research shows that genes are an important part of individual opinion formation. In particular the results show that genes influence individual differences in social ideological orientation,” says Ph.D. student Camilla Nexøe, from the Department of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark.
Social ideology includes attitudes towards social issues, such as the approach towards border control, gay rights, or notions of free speech.
“Genes explain up to 30 per cent of individual differences in social ideological orientation, such as our perception of minorities,” says Nexøe. And she stresses while genes predispose us to a particular opinion, that does not necessarily mean that we will go on to hold those opinions.
“Most of the variation in political opinion formation is not due to genetics, but some is,” she says.
The results are part of Nexøe’s Ph.D. thesis, which she will defend later this year.
No influence on our views of the economy
Previous research has found a link between genetics and ideological orientation, but Nexøe’s research narrows that down, specifically to social ideology.
“Many previous studies have shown that genes have an impact on ideological orientation, but my research shows that it’s not always the case. For example, genes affect our tolerance of diversity, but not our views on economic issues,” she says.
The new results should help researchers to understand why people hold the political views they do, says Nexøe.
“Even if you grew up in the same environment or have the same level of education, political opinions sometimes differ between individuals. Genetic influences may partly explain why individuals hold different world views,” she says.
Not surprising that we inherit ideological views
A genetic influence on your opinions may sound alarming, but Nexøe disagrees.
“I think it's reassuring that you cannot force everyone to agree. People can differ on which environmental influences they are exposed to, but part of our ideological orientation cannot be swayed.”
And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that political perceptions are at least partially inherited.
“Human personality is affected by both genetic and environmental components, just like the propensity to smoke or drink,” says Nexøe.
“We accept that personality and types of diseases are heritable. We should also accept that political views are under some genetic influence.”
Twins under the microscope
Nexøe studied 646 sets of twins in Denmark, who answered a questionnaire about their attitudes and political engagement.
Identical twins grow up in the same environment and have the same genes, while fraternal (non-identical) twins experience the same environment but only share about half of their genes.
If fraternal twins differ more in their politics than identical twins, then this difference is probably due to genetics.
This method is based more on statistics than biology, and Nexøe herself stresses that she is not a geneticist.
“I can’t say anything about which types of genes are at play, or why they affect individual opinion formation,” says Nexøe. But based on the twin-survey data, she identified the overall proportion of genetic influence on individual ideological orientation.
A step forward in genetics
The new study is ground breaking, as it specifically identifies the type of opinions that are, and are not influenced by genetics, says Troels Bøggild, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark.
“Nexøe’s results are new and interesting, because she examines which attitudes are influenced by genes. A number of other studies have established a genetic effect, but Nexøe’s results offer a more nuanced picture,” says Bøggild.
Previous studies focused on a one-dimensional understanding of ideology or either left- or right-wing political leanings. But the new study specifically isolates social vs. economic points of view, which is “quite obvious and a very relevant contribution to genetics research,” says Bøggild.
Kerrn-Jespersen, Rasmus. 2016. “Genes shape our social ideological attitudes”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 10, 2016. Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/genes-shape-our-values-based-political-views