What Can Genetics Tell Us About Participation?

For a while now there’s been some literature looking at the extent to which genetic traits might be linked to patterns of political participation, with some studies suggesting that genes might even play a role in which party one votes for. Here’s a great contribution to this literature, looking at the extent to which psychological traits – cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion – mediate the relationship between genes and participatory behavior. As well as the findings, the paper also presents an excellent overview of the literature at the intersection of genetics and political participation. Below are a few excerpts from the paper (forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science).

Motivated by earlier research showing a genetic basis for political attitudes (Martin et al. 1986, Alford, Funk & Hibbing 2005), researchers recently discovered that political behaviors like voter turnout and other acts of political participation are also influenced by genetic variation (Fowler,Baker & Dawes 2008). These findings raise the question of how genes and political participation are linked. Mondak (2010) suggested that personality traits may intermediate the relationship between genes and political participation, a conjecture that is potentially supported by recent scholarship demonstrating a relationship between personality traits and political participation (Gerber et al. 2011, Mondak et al. 2010, Mondak 2010, Blais & St-Vincent 2011, Vecchione & Caprara 2009, Mondak & Halperin 2008, Denny & Doyle 2008, Gallego & Oberski 2012). However, an empirical link between genes, personality traits, and political participation has yet to be established. This article seeks to explore the relationship between all three using a uniquely assembled and comprehensive genetically informative dataset with information on personality, cognitive ability and a wide range of political attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. We focus on three potential intermediate psychological traits identified by the literature: cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion.


To preview our results, we demonstrate that both acts of participation and related political predispositions share a common source of genetic variation with psychological traits. However, the three psychological traits we study account for only a modest amount of the heritable variation in political participation and predispositions. If psychological traits are in fact mediators, as has been hypothesized by other scholars (Mondak et al. 2010, Mondak 2010), a majority of the heritable variation in political participation and predispositions is likely mediated by traits other than cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion. Finally, we attempt to test the nature of the relationship between genes, psychological traits, and political participation using a Direction of Causation model (Heath et al. 1993, Duy & Martin 1994).

You can read the full paper “Genes, Psychological Traits, and Participation” here [PDF].

4 thoughts on “What Can Genetics Tell Us About Participation?

  1. Oh, Tiago, I’m such a big fan of your blog, but this one made me wrinkle my forehead and sigh with frustration over the misleading way psychological, and especially bio-psychological research is communicated. Just two things I find majorly wrong with this paper:
    First, the results are not surprising and in no way suggesting anything revolutionary: we are physiologically more or less or different reactive to a certain range of stimuli. So, starting off with a set reactivity spectrum, we’ll develop in whatever environment we grow up in based on the limits and opportunities our body holds for us. Thus, some of our behaviors are indirectly enabled or inhibited by our genes. If you don’t have arms, you probably won’t become a professional chef (or is that possible nowadays? I don’t even know…). If you’re below average in mental rotation, maths will never be your thang. If your brain is relatively indifferent to shocks of adrenalin, you’re probably not a big sensation seeker. And if you’re prefrontal cortex can’t make your limbic system shut up for a while, you’ll never really enjoy reading a newspaper. Twins showing similar patterns of political engagement is not a revolutionary finding. They have overlaps in IQ, social orientation, sensitivity, empathy, activity level, aggression- not surprising that they develop an about similar relationship to politics. So, research has again succeeded at making something official that we already kind of knew. Yeay. Moving on now.
    Findings like this, presented in the way you presented them (not criticizing the researchers here! I thoroughly enjoyed reading their paper), with no further commentary on what implications you are drawing from them and why you are drawing them, contribute to the overly simplified, unreflective public discourse about behavior and genetics that is not only cringe-worthily wrong, but also dangerous. We live in a world where science has elevated itself to an ideology. What is said in scientific journals is commonly accepted to be as close as we ever get to THE truth. Apart from having serious doubts if there is such a thing as THE truth (Wittgenstein, Foucault and Bourdieu are nodding along somewhere in the background), I’m absolutely sure that what is written in scientific journals, even if it comes close to being true, is so context-specific, so isolated and so broken down into tiny little variables of content, that it is dangerous to repeat it in a public debate as if implications can be drawn from it by anyone, anywhere and in any way they want to without risking to distort things completely out of shape. And, coming back to this case, that is exactly what might happen here: somebody reads “Political participation is genetically determined!” And thinks “Hu, no wonder I totally failed at convincing my friend the other day to go and vote…” Everything coming out of psychology that makes it sound as if individuals are the only source of their behavior (as opposed to the environment being the strongest causal power behind our behavior), is at risk of later becoming victim-blaming or taking away responsibility for collective change from the ones in power, when repeated by the wrong people. So please, treat knowledge responsibly: give a personal evaluation, when you repeat it to others. And if you can’t do that, you might reconsider in how far your personal expertise allows you to evaluate the relevance of a piece of research, before you actually spread it. Ideas are contagious.
    I really hope you won’t take this as too harsh a criticism- it’s not so much my frustration with this particular case that drove this little rant, but with so, so, so, so many public debates about psychological findings that completely deteriorated in an unhelpful, sometimes even hurtful and counterproductive direction. See my blog post http://systemconscienceme.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/wtf-psychology/
    Thanks so much for you’re amazingly interesting blog though! Really appreciate it!

  2. Nvm the “two things I find majorly wrong with this paper”, it should simply be “two things I want to point out”. The first was my emotional reaction of disgust when confronted with post-positivism, later on my rational self gets through. They sometimes contradict each other 🙂

  3. Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you like the blog and that you enjoyed reading the paper. As much as I would like, I do not always have the time to give my personal evaluation about every piece of research that I post here. I prefer to think that others are very well capable of making their best judgment about what is posted without my mediation, just like you did. If for every post I spend too much time thinking about the type of reader who may think stuff like “Huh, no wonder I totally failed at convincing my friend the other day to go and vote…” I would not post at all. And I am not convinced that would be the best solution. After all, the many are smarter than the few.

    Thanks again!

  4. The time thing I understand, and I do appreciate most of the things you choose to spread. However, I hope I got across that it is absolutely misleading to turn to genetics in order to explain political participation (or actually: any kind of behavior). In my opinion, genetics in psychology are nothing but fun facts: Some cosy numbers to rest on for when we had enough of dealing with the annoyingly subjective, ambiguous complexity of human minds. With that in mind, the article is a good read. Not sure I agree with your last statement, though. The many WOULD be smarter than the few, if the few didn’t have most of the power in the world, thus also the means to acquire, spread and sometimes impose discourses of knowledge. For example discourses about genetics and behavior.
    So. Made my contribution, I’ll be quiet now 🙂 Thank you for your response!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s