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This article in Mother Jones (H/T Julian Haydon) builds on work which I, myself, talked about in my book Free Will? It is certainly the case that we can predict political leanings using disgust sensitivity.

YouTube video

As I state in my book (p. 153-4):

In addition, the twins research threw up powerful hints at our beliefs being determined:

Alford, who has researched this topic for a number of years, and his team analyzed data from political opinions of more than 12,000 twins in the United States and supplemented it with findings from twins in Australia. Alford found that identical twins were more likely to agree on political issues than were fraternal twins.

On the issue of property taxes, for example, an astounding four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion, while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.

“What we found was that it probably is going to take more than a persuasive television ad to change someone’s mind on a certain political position or attitude,” said Alford. “Individual genes for behaviors do not exist and no one denies that humans have the capacity to act against genetic predispositions. But predictably dissimilar correlations of social and political attitudes among people with greater and lesser shared genotypes suggest that behaviors are often shaped by forces of which the person themselves are not consciously aware.”

Alford believes that political scientists are too quick to dismiss genetics; rather, he believes genetics should be studied and taught along with social-environment influences.[1]

John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political scientist, interpreted the results in this way:

“Forty, perhaps 50 percent of our political beliefs seem to have a basis in genetics,” said Hibbing… While genetics are unlikely to “hardwire” people into being liberal or conservative, Hibbing said that genes could make people more or less likely to have certain values or react to situations in a particular way.[2]

Hibbing thus implies that although there may not be a magic gene that defines your political beliefs, a set of genes will determine the sort of values you have that, depending upon the rest of your genetic makeup that may interfere, will determine your political leanings.

These determinist ideas are also employed in investigating whether we, as humans, are determined, or at the very least have more propensity, to believe in God. Much research has been initiated to investigate this theory, notably including a £2 million research project into finding whether there is an evolutionary basis for religion.

[1]RiceUniversity (2008, February 6). Political Views May Be Genetically Influenced, Twin Study Shows. ScienceDaily. (Retrieved 11/2009 from /releases/2008/02/080206091437.htm)

[2] (112/2009)

[End of quote]


Now it seems that a machine can make such political predictions, again calling into question our propensity to have free will. Hibbings himself claims in the Inquiring Minds podcast,

“We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things. It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently.”

As the Mother Jones article reports:

In a 2012 study, Hibbing and his colleagues showed as much through the use of eye-tracking devices like the one shown above. Liberals and conservatives were fitted with devices that tracked their gaze, and were shown a series of four-image collages containing pictures that were either “appetitive” (e.g., something happy or positive) or “aversive” (showing something threatening, scary, or disgusting). The eye-tracking device allowed the researchers to measure where the research subjects first fixed their gaze, how long it took them to do so, and then how long they tended to dwell on different images.

Here’s an example of an aversive, disgust-evoking image, one that just happens to also feature Hibbing himself. He says worms are actually “quite tasty.” (This picture wasn’t actually used in the study, but a very similar one was.)

And you can see an example of a four-image collage used in the study here. One of the images is adorable, the rest are varying degrees of disgusting and aversive. Which image does your eye go to first, and how long did you focus on it?

The results of Hibbing’s study were clear: The conservatives tended to focus their eyes much more rapidly on the negative or aversive images, and also to dwell on them for a lot longer. The authors therefore concluded that based on results like these, “those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently.”

“Maybe you’ve had this experience, watching a political debate with somebody who disagrees with you,” says Hibbing. “And you discuss it afterwards. And it’s like, ‘Did we watch the same debate?’ And in some respects, you didn’t. And I think that’s what this research indicates.”

The great psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also done work to conclude the same. This video sets it out in a really enjoyable manner:

YouTube video

As reports the above talk:

“Morality isn’t just about stealing and killing and honesty, it’s often about menstruation, and food, and who you are having sex with, and how you handle corpses,” says NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics.

Haidt argues that our concern over these victimless behaviors is rooted in our biology. Humans evolved to feel disgusted by anything that when consumed makes us sick. That sense of disgust then expanded “to become a guardian of the social order.”

This impulse is at the core of the culture war. Those who have a low sensitivity to disgust tend to be liberals or libertarians; those who are easily disgusted tend to be conservative.

Now, the disgust sensitivity, which correlates to our political preferences, is “primal”, meaning that it is involuntary or what one might call a gut reaction or emotion. For example, it seems that some people have natural inclination to more egalitarian societal structure, others more hierarchical, which can broadly be seen as liberal and conservative. This can also be seen as a desire for forgiveness against the desire for strict punishments. Moreover, it seems that there are natural inclinations for some towards finding out-groups and people of out-groups enticing and intriguing whilst others find them to be threatening.

Interestingly, these points are defended by the work of people like Blogowska, whose abstract of a recent paper reads:

Fundamentalism not only predicts prejudice toward outgroups but also prosociality toward proximal targets and ingroups. Taking things a step further, we hypothesized that because fundamentalists tend to show submission to religious authority, their attitudes toward unknown targets and outgroups may vary significantly depending on the nature of the authoritative religious texts to which they are exposed. In three studies using hypothetical scenarios, the association between fundamentalism and prosocial attitudes (a) became negative after exposure to a violent biblical text (Study 1; unknown targets), (b) reversed from negative to positive after reading a prosocial biblical text (Study 2; negligent targets), and (c) became negative or positive following a violent versus prosocial biblical text (Study 3; atheist target). Additional results confirmed the uniqueness of fundamentalism compared to general religiosity, quest orientation, and authoritarianism, regarding such dependency upon religious authority. Findings also support the mediating roles of reported submissiveness to religious teachings and perceived symbolic threat.

This shows that the more religiously fundamental you are, the more likely you are to be nasty to out-groups and nicer to in-groups. The more liberal you are, the more universal your prosciality (kindness) is. This puts an interesting slant on the claim oft heard that religious people are more charitable. It turns out they are, but only to their in-group associates (and this largely includes donating money to their own churches etc.).

Hibbing et al also did some work released in December 2013, the abstract of which reads:

This article reports results from the first twin study of adults in the United States that focuses exclusively and comprehensively on political traits. These data allow us to test whether a common set of genetic and environmental influences act upon a broad variety of values, personality traits, and political attitudes. In short, it allows us to empirically investigate whether there are a core set of predispositions that form the basis of our political orientations and, if so, whether these predispositions are shaped by the same environmental and innate forces. The key finding from our analysis is that there are core political predispositions that are rooted in common genetic and environmental influences and that these predispositions are empirically distinct from broader personality traits. [my emphasis]

So, back to the Mother Jones article, we have a fascinating conclusion drawn:

Thus, the idea seems to be that our physiology, who we are in our bodies, may lead us to experience the world in such a way that basic preferences about how to run society emerge naturally from more basic dispositions and habits of perception. So, if you have a negativity bias, and you focus more on the aversive and disgusting, then the world seems more threatening to you. And thus, policies like supporting a stronger military, or being tougher on immigration, might feel very natural.

And when you combine Hibbing’s research on the physiology of ideology with waves of other studies showing that liberals and conservatives appear to differ when it comes to geneticshormonesmoral emotionspersonalities, and even brain structures, the case for politics being tied to biology seems pretty strong indeed.

I find this sort of evidence fascinating. I often get drawn into long and protracted debates about how libertarian free will is not philosophically or logically tenable, and get frustrated when people just don’t get this. Perhaps I should just say, “Well, go away and explain all the findings of genetics, social science, neuroscience, psychology etc. etc. under libertarian free will” because, of course, LFW does nothing to explain data like this, data like the plethora hinted and linked to above.

So the work cut out for LFWers is twofold; not only do they have to show a coherent method of obtaining and explaining libertarian free will in a causal sense, but that method has to explain the data which universally supports the negation of such a worldview.

Of course, without a viable notion or set of evidence to support libertarian free will,, the likelihood of it existing is infinitesimal. An this has rather critical, terminal even, ramifications for the notion of a judgemental god.

The Inquiring Minds podcast mentioned above:




A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...