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.

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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].