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Nature, Nurture And Your Politics

What role does biology play in our politics? More than you might think, according to political scientist John Hibbing.
What role does biology play in our politics? More than you might think, according to political scientist John Hibbing.

When most of us think about how we came to our political views, we often give a straightforward answer. We believe our stances on taxes, immigration or national security are shaped by those around us — our friends, parents, teachers. We assume our life experiences are the root of our political ideologies.

But what if there is something deeper in us that drives the music we listen to, the food we eat — even the politicians that we elect?

John Hibbing is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Over the years, he's studied how our political views may also be influenced by our biology.

"We would look at brain scan results and we could be incredibly accurate knowing whether they're liberal or conservative, just on the basis of that," he says.

Genes aren't the only driver behind our political views, though. Hibbing says environment and upbringing play a large role as well. But he has found that, on average, about 30 or 40 percent of our political attitudes come from genetics. And he thinks the idea that our politics may come, at least in part, from our biology may help us to have more empathy for people who disagree with us.

"Our political beliefs are part and parcel of our entire being," he says.

This week on Hidden Brain, we bring you the first of two episodes exploring the psychology of our political identities, and where our partisan beliefs come from.

Additional Resources:

  • Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2013). Predisposed: Liberals, conservatives, and the biology of political differences. Routledge
  • Hatemi, P. K., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, J. R., Martin, N. G., & Eaves, L. J. (2009). Is there a "party" in your genes?Political Research Quarterly62(3), 584-600.
  • Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behindPolitical Psychology29(6), 807-840.
  • Ahn, W.Y., Kishida, K.T., Gu, X., Lohrenz, T., Harvey, A., Alford, J.R., Smith, K.B., Yaffe, G., Hibbing, J.R., Dayan, P. and Montague, P.R., (2014).  Nonpolitical images evoke neural predictors of political ideologyCurrent Biology24(22), 2693-2699.
  • Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Camila Vargas-Restrepo is our intern. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain , and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
    Thomas Lu is an assistant producer for Hidden Brain.He came to NPR in 2017 as an intern for the TED Radio Hour. He has worked with How I Built This, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Before coming to NPR, he was a production intern for StoryCorps.
    Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
    Camila Vargas-Restrepo