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Exploring The "Liberal Gene"

Exploring The "Liberal Gene"
Researchers at UC San Diego have identified a specific gene that apparently predisposes people to become politically liberal. We'll hear about the research and discuss the difference in personalities and attitudes that separate liberals and conservatives.

Researchers at UC San Diego have identified a specific gene that apparently predisposes people to become politically liberal. We'll hear about the research and discuss the difference in personalities and attitudes that separate liberals and conservatives.


James Fowler, political science professor at UC, San Diego.


Peter Ditto, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pyschology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Here at KPBS, we've been providing continuing coverage of the local issues and candidates leading up to tomorrow's elections, it's a public service that KPBS and other new organizations take on so voters can make informed decisions as we all cast our ballots. But, if recent research is correct, there are a lot of people who don't need information to make up their minds about politics. Their political attitudes are very deeply engrained, maybe even into their genetic code. UC San Diego research led by doctor James Fowler have published a study linking liberal political attitudes to genetics. This is the first time that research identifies a specific gene that predisposes people to a particular ideology. I'd like to introduce my guests, doctor James Fowler is political science professor at UC San Diego. Good morning.

JAMES FOWLER: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Doctor Peter Ditto is professor and chair of the department of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. He's research into the elements that make up partisan political bias. And good morning.

PETER DITTO: Good morning, Maureen.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have the same political beliefs as other members of your family? Do you spend much time with people who don't share your political views? Give us a call with your questions or comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Professor Fowler, how do you go about identifying a specific gene that's linked with liberal political attitudes.

JAMES FOWLER: We actually studied about 2000 people in this very long running study. And they started it pack in the mid-1990s with over 90000 students from all around the country. They asked them who their friends were, so they have really detailed maps of their social networks and have been following them year after year. In the early two thousands they asked them some political conversations, how liberal or conservative would you rate yourself, and they also got bio samples from them. They got information about their genes. They genotyped them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what is that gene?

JAMES FOWLER: It's a very user friendly gene, it's the DRD4 jeep. It's a Dopamine gene, it's involved in the system in the brain that we use whenever we are experiencing reward. So the system will make you want to do something over and over again that feels good. So when we eat chocolate, this system lights up. And this particular gene has been involved in other studies with a psychological trite called novelty seeking, or they want these new experiences. And we originally thought that because of some other research that sells that openness to new experience is a liberal trait, to help you predict whether someone's politically liberal or not, because of that literature, we thought we would find a direct link between this gene variant and this political ideology. And the kind of social experience they had in high school. And the reason why this is the case is because you might be seeking out now experiences but they might not be new social experiences or new political experience of so if you only have a small number of friends or social life. You're not gonna be seeking out people's new at . So really, it's this combination of having many friends in adolescence, and having this genotype that tends to predispose you to having new experiences, those two things in combination are associated we find with whether or not people classify themselves as liberal.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So in this study, did you say about 2000 people were included in that study?

JAMES FOWLER: That's correct.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The most people who have this gene variant expressed a liberal political attitude?

JAMES FOWLER: They leaned left. We have about 25000 genes, and this is just one, and this is a complex social behavior, so there are going to be hundreds of genes that are probably involved in this particular trait. And this is just the first one that we've looked at. This is the first one to identify a relationship between the gene and the outcome. .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 1if you'd like to comment. And let me get you, professor Ditto, into this. How does this new finding square with previous research into political attitudes?

PETER DITTO: We approached the problem in a very different way. But this work is really, really consistent with what you find in the literature. Again as James suggested, one of the important factors that under lies a political liberalism is openness to experience. And you find that we find that in our research, and lots of other people have as well. And that's what I -- you know, the sort of work that I do is really involved with this notion, and I think that political beliefs are really affectively determined. That people -- that the subjective experience people have is they think their way to their political belief. That they reason their way to them. And that's true to a certain extent. But it's sort of a guided reasoning. And a lot of it is, people don't think their way to their political beliefs so much as they feel their way to their political beliefs. They have these basic, affectively then they construct an ideology around those. So this would be very consistent with what you would sort of expert from that. And peep who are comfortable don't want experience anxiety around my things would be more tolerant of different divergent viewpoints, more interests in social progress, less attached to authority. And people who feel more anxiety about novelty, are more likely to cling to the past, tradition, cling to a sort of nostalgic view of the world the way it was. And that's one clear sort of dimension that you see the political -- in the left political ideology.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want you to both weigh in on this, because I think this is very sort of a dramatic idea, and this is, I think a lot of people feel very, very strongly, the feeling again, that they have come about their political ideology -- has come about through a process of logical thought 678 that they have thought themselves into where they are. And therefore people appeal to their reason for their -- when they're arguing politics. But apparently, professor Fowler, that is -- not consistent with a lot of research that's gone on. Of.

JAMES FOWLER: Well, actually, I would disagree, and the reason why is because we're not saying this is everything. This is one thing among many. This are some people who are short but still are good basketball players. We would find that -- so I would say that a good chunk of how we arrive at the beliefs this we have to do with these, these experiences that we have, and they do have to do with reflection and logical thinking. I think what our research is showing is that you start from different baselines though. Some people start from a more liberal baseline, and some people start from a more conservative baseline. If going to become the opposite of that, it's going to require you to show some self will to become a different person.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand. But professor Peter Ditto, you make an observation that people who think that they have come to their political beliefs by a series of logic, all you have to do is ask them several questions to get beneath that logic into something that's deeper than that.

PETER DITTO: Yeah, I think that there -- and again, I wouldn't disagree with James's analysis at all. I think what's sort of great about the work is that you have this sort of general, genetically based disposition, then shaped by experience. That's exactly Quint with what we would argue. People have these moral trigger points, and people are prepared in a way to experience all of them, then they get kind of dialed up and dialed do you understand through a complicated process of biology and socialization, you know, such that what we find is that liberals, people who call themselves political liberals tend to value thing like harm and fairness, the most things, they care about whether something will harm somebody and how fair it is, and that's really all they care about. And conservatives really care about a whole bunch of other things, things like they have a moral attachment to, you know, tradition, authority, to in- group sorts of things, to patriotism, and spiritual purity and sanctity. And all of those kind of things. So it's a very complicated process, it's more than just novelty seeking but ultimately what it is is the two types feel differently about things. And that's what makes it so hard sometimes for them to get along, because they just don't feel the same way about certain issues. They don't have the same emotional reactions. And when you don't feel .

JAMES FOWLER: Can I jump in quick cannily too, and just say, sometimes people hear these relationships that we're talking about, we talk about openness and liberalism, and it makes it sound like we're just trying to figure out what are the good things and say those are liberal, because we're a bunch of liberals at a university. But in fact, the same research is showing, for example, when you look at the personality trait of conscientious, that that's a good predictor for being conservative. So we really do work to try and see, what are the positive benefits of being one way, and what are the positive benefits of being the other way? And if anything, find thwack this goes all the way down to the jeans is really satisfying because it means that over tens of thousands of years whatever, we have these systems that evolution has reacted on, and if it was benefit for everyone to be liberal all the time, we'd all be liberal butch we're not. We have genetic variation that suggests there's a role in diversity all the way up to the genetic level, .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with doctor James Fowler, new research by doctor Fowler, and UC San Diego researchers, they published eye study, listening political attitudes to I specific gene variant. And my other guest is doctor Peter Ditto. He's professor and chair of the department of psychology at UC Irvine of he's done research into the elements that make up partisan political bias. And we are taking your calls. How do you think you arrived 59 your political ideology. Of tell us at 1-888-895-5727. Shawn is calling us from Point Loma. Good morning, Shawn, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Yeah, I'm from a very conservative southeast Idaho family, and however, me and my brother, we're sandwiched in gonna four sisters, me and my brother seem to be completely different than the rest. We both moved away from southeast Idaho, we're both fairly liberal, we're both -- we both have bachelors degrees, and we're the only ones in our family this have done this. I was wondering if the studies showed any kind of gender specificity when it came to this effect.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gender specificity, professor fouler?

JAMES FOWLER: Yeah, so, we were curious about this too, and for this particular gene we did not find a relationship. But there's work by Peter Hatemi, who's another person who works at the intersection of genetics and political science. And he actually claims to have found some evidence, that we can explain some of the gender gap between women and men as I Johnson of genetic variation. It appears that there are some attitudes that you would associate with being liberal, like reproductive rights, for example, that are more tightly linked to genes in women than in men.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. And professor Ditto?

PETER DITTO: I think there are some sort of elements of this, that would sake sense from the kind of gender based background, so one of the things that we've been interested in is empathic concern, whether you feel what other people feel, particularly vulnerable people, and that's sort of one of the bases of liberalism too, this over reaction to people who -- I say over reaction because it's a more extreme reaction than other people have to, kind of, vulnerable groups, and women tend to show that a lot bit more than men. And that might explain some of the gender gap because, you know, that women are traditionally a little mirror liberal or vote more democratic than men do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If some political views have some sort of basis or predisposition in genetics, why as our caller said, why do people in one family have such different political views?

JAMES FOWLER: You have to remember, it's a genetic lottery. You don't get exactly the same genes from your mom and your dad. You're gonna get a combination from some and some from the other. Not only that, we were studying -- this is earlier days for genetic relationships. , and that's almost certainly not true. So what's possible is that we get different combinations from our parents and those combinations, even though they come from the same sort of set of jeans that our mothers and fathers have, it's those combinations that are going to yield different kinds of behaviors of so that's one thing. But the other thing is that, you know, the caller said that he and his brother moved away. And will so they have a new environment now, right? So maybe there was a little bit of a leaning away from that kind of a life that made them want to come to San Diego. But I don't want to emphasize too much the jeans. This is genes and environment. And this is it an example of how the environment also probably played a very important role in the caller's ideology.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You describe it kind of like a cake mix.

JAMES FOWLER: Yeah, that's right. We were trying to see what is the relationship between flour and how good the cake tastes, right? And it's not a 1 to 1 relationship. It's gonna depend on how the flour interacts with the baking soda and the eggs and so on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Debbie is calling us from Scripps Ranch.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. When the gentleman there said that your experiences in high school had an effect or maybe not an effect, but that they showed whether or not you may lean towards the liberal or conservative side. I immediately thought, no, wait a minute, that's not the case for us. I was not a highly social person. I mean, I had a small group of friends. Maybe there were three of us. Then I had a slightly wider circle. But I wasn't really that, you know -- and I consider myself very much a liberal. And also not a risk taker at all. I don't want like surprises. I'm not -- I mean, it's not that I don't like new experiences of but I'm like, well, wait a minute, what's going on. Of and my son is very similar of he's a liberal. And he had a very small circle of friends. Now, my daughter, she's kind of in between, she had a much larger circle of friends, she's kind of on the fence of my husband's a conservative. So I guess she gets some of that from him, and some of that from me, but I just decided there needs to be a wider study done. It definitely isn't true in our family. ?

A. Debbie, you are a genetic anomaly 678 thank you so much for calling and I appreciate it. I'd like to get your comments.

JAMES FOWLER: This is an excellent point. We have about 25000 genes, and we have hundreds of thousands of variants of this genes this we know of. And we're finding more and more all the time. So I would not, you know, be the first person or the left -- I would not say that this study is gonna be the last thing that we be. In fact, if you look at how much this gene can explain differences between people, you'd have to have about 200 genes and environmental factors that have -- to have the same strength of effect in order to be able to explain it all of that's how small it is. It's less than one 200th of total difference that people have. So what we really need to do is something that Peter Hatemi, the person I mentioned earlier, is a genome wide study between all these different variants and whether people are liberal or conservative, and I think through that process, we're gonna identify morph of the genes that might make sense for your last caller.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Peter Ditto, you were talking about a little earlier about moral triggers that you've done research on that separate liberals and conservatives. Tell us a little bit more about that. And perhaps you can explain it in terms of an issue like gay marriage.

PETER DITTO: If liberals support an -- so this is the work that I do in collaboration with Jonathan Haidt at University of Virginia. I think that's hay great example. The idea is that there's sort of about five moral triggers that we can identify now. And there may be more, there may be less, so if you take something like gay marriage and a classical liberal would only apply two moral criterias to that, they would say, well, does it hurt anybody, and is it fair? So they would say, from that criteria, sure, it's not hurting anybody to allow somebody to get married, and it's unfair to preclude same sex couples from getting married, so it seems like it's the moral thing to do. The conservative would look at that and they might agree with the harm and fairness issue, but they would say things like, well, what about things like how it fits with traditional society? It's very different from what we've ever done before. So it seems wrong from that standpoint. And gay people seem like they're not -- they're kind of outsiders, they seem unusual, they behave differently, and when they act up in ways to protest, that seems kind of odd and wrong. Then they have this sort of idea about spiritual purity. Everybody has all of these, and this is sort of dialed up a little bit more, and conservatives say, well, gee, this doesn't seem quite right. And there's something about this behavior that bothers me a little bit, and if something bothers you, you're more likely to say, well, gee, I'm not sure that's something that society can condone. Or we should accept policies to accept. I may not hate gay people, but I just don't think it's something society should promote. You got two sides and very different moral viewpoints about their attitudes about any particular issue can flow really directly from that, and sort of held to understand that these ---y.

Q. From these different moral places, and it's hard for each side to understand each other's moral positions. Because they don't feel the same way, they don't have the same moral reactions?

JAMES FOWLER: I think that's exactly right. And some of the early genetic research we're looking into too, critical in what we're being about genes and political ideology.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Tammy is calling from Poway. Good morning, Tammy. And welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks, I'll try and make this quick. I have so many things going through my mind. But what I see today with the defenses between Republicans and democratic, the parties, it's really drawn along racial lines. And I think a lot of that has to do with if you're part of a disenfranchised group, you're gonna identify with the party that, you know, has some empathy or sympathy for that group. And I have the opportunity to work at the Republican national convention in 2008, and what I noticed is that there was no diversity whatsoever. Unlike the Democratic Party or independents, no diversity. And who wants to really be a part of a group that doesn't want you at their party?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. I appreciate it, I'm sure that Republicans would not agree that there was no diversity in their party. But professor Fowler, does that go to the outsider insider thing you were talking about?

JAMES FOWLER: I think it does. The question is, who are the insiders? If we lived in a country that didn't as well as many white people, maybe it would be made up of a different group. But I do think this some of these core differences that end up being translated into the specific political issues of the United States, the European countries issue African kitchens issue Asian countries, there's still this core, and this core we can think of along these moral dimensions that professor Ditto was talking about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wording, professor Ditto, one of the complaints about politics that people make these days, is that liberals and conservatives it doesn't matter that they have different opinions, but they don't even agree on the facts anymore, is that more evident that these beliefs actually don't stem from logic?

PETER DITTO: Yeah, well, again, it's always a mixture. We have a complexity theme, that's a good one running through her, because I think things are -- people do use logic, but it's sort of guided lodge I think. And one of the things I'm interested in is how we shape facts to fit with our moral beliefs that, you know, and as you see so much of that today, is just this culture war that weaver experiencing between left and right, is sort of less a fight about what's moral and what's not than it is about what sort of set of facts is true, so the liberals have one set of facts that they believe about the world, and conservatives have another set. And the facts tend to sort of justify their moral view that their moral view not only is sort of the right thing to do, but it's, you know, practically the most efficacious thing to do. And that's what -- what I think is really fueling this, a lot of this culture war is that now we have this new media environment where you can -- you know where to go to get your facts. If you're a conservative issue you go to fox news and your favorite talk show host. If you're a liberal, you go to MSNBC, and your favorite talk show host. And you can just get those facts reinforced. So it's very hard to have a substantive conversation if the two sides start with a completely different set of facts. So what do you do at that point if you just don't even agree on basic facts? And that's where a lot of this emotional organization does, it kind of organizes the way we understand the factual bases of the world as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Britta is calling from Mission Hills. And welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, yes, thanks for taking my call. I am -- I have say sort of an interesting past because I was born in Germany and raised during the Nazi era, and I was separated, my brother and I both were separated from our parents. And we were raised by a couple who were -- I don't know if they were just playing look with the Nazis because they had to, but I -- you know from the outside, it looked like they were doing everything the Nazis were telling them. And hating everybody the Nazis were telling them to hate. And all of that. Then I when I got older, I just for some reason never really, really thinking about it became the total opposite. It's almost like a rebellion where I refused to label people no matter whether -- I mean, the death penalty, everything. And I'm loving it. I feel very comfortable and I looked up the word liberal, and even though it's a sort of slander in politics, it's a good word, if you look it up in the dictionary, it's very positive, it's accepting, it's tolerant, open minded, I mean, you know, how better can you get? It can't get any better than that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Britta, thank you so much for sharing that story. And I want to ask you, professor Fowler, britta experienced this in a very dramatic, almost an historic kind of transformation from this very difficult and troubled childhood in Nazi Germany. But a lot of people have a sort of rebellion against the political attitudes of their parents. Where does that stem from?

JAMES FOWLER: I don't know. I think that this particular mechanism that we've identified in the study we're talking about today, it's possibly part of the story, right? That novelty seekers, they're gonna be the ones who are thinking about alternate points of view, and they'll think, oh, here's someone new in my life, who has beliefs that's completely opposite to my parents of so I'm gonna be attracted to that. It's possible. But I also want to make sure that the listeners are cheer that the opposite of a liberal is not Nazi. So it's possible for reasonable people to disagree. And I just want to emphasize again, if genetic variation is influencing how liberal or conservative we are, then there's probably, you know, a reason for us to have that kind of diversity. That diversity of viewpoints and that diversity of moral frames that we're finding at the psychological level.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I do want to make the point, professor Fowler, that lots of right wing political networks have been calling you saying now we know how to cure the sickness of liberalism. We found the gene! And what do you tell them when someone with that sort of a mindset gives you a call?

JAMES FOWLER: First of all, this could as easily be called the conservative gene as it's called the liberal gene. It's easier to say that nan the political ideology gene because a lot of people have no idea what that means. So if you really think that this is some way of doing that, then you're kind of shooting yourself in the foot, saying ah, ha, . But the paper makes a much stronger point that this is not just genes. This will is genes and environment. It doesn't matter how good a seed you have, if you don't put any water on it, it's 234089 gonna grow. It doesn't matter how much your genes might give you a propensity to vote. If you live in a country without elections, you're not going to vote. So this is a combination of genes and the environment, and to say that this is some kind of genetic defect I think misses the broader point, that this is biology, and our social environment that influences us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And professor Ditto, is there any explanation as who to you people perhaps rebel against the political attitudes of their parents or how people traditionally, at least people say they get more conservative as they get older?

PETER DITTO: I think that's a great example of how much more there is to know. How much, you know, sort of limited the inferences you can draw between things that we can find. I think one of the big things left to answer is how people go through sort of radical shifts. Many of the neoconservatives today were -- grew up as liberals and had a switch. People switch both ways. I don't think -- obviously genetics isn't going to do a very good job of explaining that. And I can't do a very good job of explaining it either. And I just -- I also want to just reiterate that a lot of the work that we do is really fueled by a sort of belief in civil discourse. And that if we understand where the psychological nature of ideology comes from, then we will -- if we understand each other better, then we'll relate to each other better. If we realize that both conservatives and liberal college professors realize that conservatives come from a sort of moral place, and it's just a different one that many of us have, are and vice versa, and not that it's an Amoral place, it's not that people are coming and trying to have, you know, some sort of evil intentions when they're doing things. And those kind of accusations just fly rampantly in today's political culture, right? So there's all sorts of accusations about why each has really got some insidious motives for what they're doing, and those things sort of go away if you understand a little bit more the psychology of it, that people have different moral triggers, they're gonna come to different political conclusions, but those come from a moral place.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want to ask you, basically the same thing, professor Fowler, a lot of people will take the information of this study and say, well, how do we -- how does this research help us find any kind of common grouped at install won't we just be talking past each other? How do you see this developing into trying to achieve some sort of more civil dialogue between liberals and conservatives?

JAMES FOWLER: I started this research because as a graduate student, I was told all we know about political ideology and participation is this there's this environment out there that affects us. Our education, our friends our parents, and our environment has nothing to do with what we bring to the table. That's really depressing. . And I will be just like those people in the small town in the midwest. And I think what this is showing us is that we're not cogs in the machine. We're more hike snowflakes. That gives us this diversity of political viewpoints and psychologies.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap it up there, but I want to thank you both so much. Thank you doctor Peter Ditto, thank you for joining us today.

PLAINTIFF: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doctor James Fowler. Thank you so much.

JAMES FOWLER: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, an on core interview about two Neal Simon plays running at the old global theater. That's as These Days continues on here on KPBS.