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The Genetics of Political Intensity

Your genes may determine whether you cling furiously to your political beliefs or cast them aside at a shift in the breeze.

With the New Year here, many of you may have resolved to exercise a little moderation for 2010. But when it comes to politics, moderation is hardly the word of the day.

Few would argue that the "middle" in American politics is alive and well — recent research indicates that the opposite is true. As our Emily Badger points out, polarization in Congress has reached record highs; another Idea Lobby post argues that Americans' political differences have also increased.

New research in Political Research Quarterly suggests that there may be a reason for this political fervor, and it's not what you'd expect. Peter Hatemi, John Alford, John Hibbing, Nicholas Martin and Lindon Eaves determined that partisan intensity is genetically influenced. Their research suggests that although your genes don't predict which party you'll belong to, they appear to play a major role in determining the extent to which you'll belong.

By their reckoning, genes are half responsible for the degree of your party commitment — unique experience counts for the other half.

Their finding reinforces earlier research conducted by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes that shows that people with certain genetic variations are less likely to participate in political activities like voting (see "Is the GOP in your DNA?").

Family ties, long thought to play a role in determining political affinities, had no significant effect on partisan intensity. So it was your parents' genes, and not your childhood dinner-table conversations with them, that dictate your political conviction (or lack thereof).

However, genetics play an insignificant role in determining what party you'll belong to, especially compared to environmental influences like parental affiliation, so you shouldn't dismiss the impact of Dad's rants altogether.

The researchers based their conclusions on a study from the 1980s that surveyed 12,000 twins in the United States. The siblings responded to a variety of questions, 28 of which dealt with political issues. By including both identical and non-identical twins, the researchers sought to separate the effects of genes from those of environment.

Their work is part of an effort by a group of scientists to inform the realm of political science with data-based, empirical work, as outlined in a 2008 article by Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith.

Yet the scientists encourage readers to interpret with caution: "There is no single direct path from genes to behavior. Rather, they are likely to be numerous and convoluted."

In other words, this doesn't mean you can explain to your parents that your genes inspired you to chain yourself to a tree.

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