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Morning Feature – Our Political Nature Part I: Openness and Tribalism

October 9, 2013

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – Our Political Nature Part I: Openness and Tribalism

In his provocative new book, political anthropologist Avi Tuschman offers science to show that how you vote reflects your genes as much as your personal history, economic self-interest, and current issues. (More)

Our Political Nature Part I: Openness and Tribalism

This week Morning Feature explores Avi Tuschman’s new book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Today we see how ‘social issues’ like racism and gender roles reflect evolutionary impulses for inbreeding and outbreeding. Tomorrow we’ll see the familial evolutionary roots of our different views on wealth inequality. Friday we’ll examine why conservatives see life through the lens of competition, while liberals see it through the lens of cooperation. Saturday we’ll discuss how to apply these insights in talking with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Avi Tuschman earned a Ph.D in evolutionary anthropology from Stanford University. He has worked with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and legislators on five continents, as well as with multilateral banks to mediate social and economic conflicts in developing countries.

Please welcome Dr. Tuschman as he joins our discussions this week.

Half an OCEAN apart

We commonly imagine that we learn about politics in school and at home, adopting or rejecting our parents’ political values as we gain life experience, and apply those values and experience to the issues in order to make rational voting decisions. Yet a surprising study by Jack and Jeanne Block found that’s less true than we imagine.

The Blocks selected 128 three-year-olds and asked preschool teachers to watch them closely for seven months. The teachers then scored the children’s personalities and social interactions on a common, standardized test. The Blocks repeated the study a year later, with the same children but different teachers … and then locked the results in a vault.

Twenty years later, the Blocks found 95 of their original subjects and asked the 24-year-olds for their opinions on a range of highly partisan, hot-button political issues. The results were astonishing. The Blocks found a clear pattern of childhood personality traits that accurately predicted adult political leanings. The vast majority of the children who were “uncomfortable with uncertainty” and “relatively over-controlled” (among other similar traits) grew up to be conservatives … and the vast majority of the children who were “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled” (again, among other similar traits) became liberals.

The Blocks’ testing fit measures of the Big Five personality traits – Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism – commonly referred to by the acronym OCEAN. Their findings have since been compared to studies of twins separated at birth, and data from other psychological studies around the world, and the results show a consistent pattern:

  • Although medians and variances vary, scores for the Big Five traits form a normal distribution curve within cultures around the world.
  • In cultures around the world, people who score higher on Openness and lower on Conscientiousness are much more likely to be liberal, while people who score lower on Openness and higher on Conscientiousness are much more likely to be conservative, within their own cultures.
  • A higher score on Extraversion also predicts liberalism, but less strongly than higher Openness and/or lower Conscientiousness.
  • In cultures around the world, these personality traits were more stable and statistically reliable predictors of political behavior than demographics such as age, gender, or income.

Dr. Tuschman argues that we are politically divided by our personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness and, to a lesser extent, Extraversion – half an OCEAN – and that the genetic variance of dispositions toward each of those traits is rooted conflicts that have shaped and still shape our evolution as a species.

Determinism and the Moralistic and Naturalistic Fallacies

I’ll pause here to emphasize that Dr. Tuschman does not argue genetic determinism. Our genes seem to predispose us to be more or less Open, Conscientious, and/or Extroverted – thus more conservative or more liberal – but those correlations are in the range of 40-60%. That is, our genes seem to be about half the story, and the other half is indeed culture and life experience. He also explicitly rejects two common logical fallacies:

In other words, Dr. Tuschman does not limit his evidence to science that fits his own moral and political outlook, nor does he argue that the evolutionary basis of liberal or conservative traits ‘proves’ their moral correctness. It simply proves that, when it comes to politics, we act – at least in part – on biological impulses that seem to be universal both around the world and throughout human history.

Inbreeding and Outbreeding

Liberals tend to score higher than average on Openness, and are generally more willing to see new places, try new foods and new ideas, and welcome and seek out different kinds of people. Oh … and mate with them.

On the other hand, conservatives score lower on Openness, and generally prefer to stay closer to home, preserve family traditions, exclude outsiders, and socialize within kinship communities. Oh … and mate with them.

That “and mate with them” is very important. In fact, Dr. Tuschman argues that the risks and benefits of outbreeding and inbreeding explain the natural variation in genes that predispose us to Openness, and also explain “social issues” that divide liberals and conservatives.

From a purely evolutionary perspective – that is, how many of your grandchildren live to adulthood – the ideal human mate seems to be a third- or fourth-cousin. Dr. Tuschman presents evidence that this level of kin-bond offers enough close genes to preserve beneficial family traits, and enough distant genes to mask negative family traits and introduce beneficial outsider traits.

In cultures around the world, conservatives tend to be more tribal: living in communities linked by stronger-than-average (for their cultures) kinship bonds. They are also more likely marry first- or second-cousins. Inbreeding has genetic risks, such as more often activating recessive genes that trigger birth defects. But it also has benefits, such as more often activating and combining genes that boost immunity to local pathogens or otherwise fit the local environment. Inbreeding – and shunning outsiders – also helps to keep away new diseases. Conservatives tend to have more children than average (for their cultures), but fewer of their children reach adulthood and they have fewer grandchildren than average. Conservatives also tend to favor strict gender roles and other norms that encourage inbreeding and reserve sex for reproduction

Conversely, liberals tend to be more cosmopolitan, living in cities with weaker-than-average (for their cultures) kinship bonds. They are more likely to marry outside outside their race, ethnicity, or religion. Outbreeding – and welcoming outsiders – also has genetic risks and benefits, primarily the converse of those described above. Liberals tend to have fewer children than average (for their cultures). More of their children reach adulthood, but they have fewer grandchildren than average (for their cultures). And liberals tend to favor more gender roles and other norms that encourage outbreeding and sex without reproduction.

“Centripetal pulls” and “centrifugal pushes”

In other words, evolution favors genetic diversity, up to a point. And, Dr. Tuschman argues, this is why evolution yields a natural variance in the genes that predispose us to Openness. Conservatives within a culture provide what he calls “centripetal pulls” that keep tribes together, while the liberals provide “centrifugal pushes” that encourage exploration and bring in new genetic stock.

Dr. Tuschman argues that plays out in social issues such as racism, religious pluralism, gender equality, and reproductive rights. On these and other “social issues,” in cultures around the world, people who score lower on Openness tend to favor “conservative” policies that emphasize and benefit tribal reproduction, while people who score higher on Openness tend to favor “liberal” policies that emphasize and benefit cosmopolitan reproduction.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the trait of Conscientiousness strongly predicts liberal or conservative positions on economic issues, especially income inequality, and how a natural variation of that trait also has evolutionary roots.


Happy Wednesday!

  • winterbanyan

    There’s a lot to absorb here, but now I am looking forward to reading Dr. Tuschman’s book. 🙂

    I had never thought of genetics in quite this way before. Long ago, I studied anthropology, and we discussed how kinship played a role in cementing communities. We never even remotely discussed the role biology might be playing. Marriages that are frowned upon in our culture are quite common in others.

    This is opening a whole new window of thought to me. Of course our genes are not the final determinant, but when you have a closed culture, then culture itself will encourage certain expressions, where an Open culture might encourage others.

    Clearly I still have a lot to learn here, and am probably only partially grasping what I read today. I’m going to be thinking a lot about this, but already it seems to be explaining something important to me.

    Welcome to Dr. Tuschman, and than you for such provocative work.

    • NCrissieB

      When it comes to politics, Americans seem to have an on-again-off-again relationship with genetics. Conservatives, for example, are happy to explain that Richie Rich Jr. is rich because he inherited Sr.’s intelligence, etc., and Ulysses Urban Jr. is in prison because he inherited Sr.’s propensity for crime. That each also inherited his parents’ financial and social capital – or lack thereof – is beside the point.

      Yet if you say that means Richie Jr. got lucky by winning the ovarian lottery, and Ulysses Jr. unlucky by losing the ovarian lottery – and that wealth or prison shouldn’t be about which womb you emerge from – conservatives will cast the genetics aside and argue for “individual choices” and “personal responsibility.”

      That said, evolutionary anthropology is an inherently risky field, in part because we’re so prone to the moralistic and naturalistic fallacies. Dr. Tuschman is extremely careful to note when scientific studies offer “weak,” “moderate,” “strong,” or “very strong” correlations … and to emphasize that genetics is only one part of the complex puzzle of human behavior. Still, there do seem to be evolutionary roots for both liberal and conservative positions on social issues … and tomorrow we’ll see there are also evolutionary roots for different positions on economic issues.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        Looking forward to tomorrow. I agree genes are not determinant. Their expressions can be affected by environment and culture. It is still interesting to think that they may be giving us “shoves” in an area where we don’t imagine them having an effect at all: political persuasions.

  • addisnana

    This made me think of this poem:

    Heretic, rebel thing to flout
    He drew a circle that shut me out
    But love and I had the wit to win
    We drew a circle that took him in.

    Who we see as “the other” and how we treat ‘those people’ defines our values and our tribe. Can we have compassion for people we have never met who are suffering? The donations to the RedCross in times of natural disaster would say we can. Do we open our spare bedrooms for homeless people? Not usually. Then the other becomes scary and not one of us. I see conservatives as blaming the down and out outsiders for their plight when it may well be that the systems we design protect the privileged and discard the others.

    Lots to think about here and apologies if what it set off in my mind is a tangent. This is fascinating stuff.

    • NCrissieB

      We’ll talk more about economic inequality issues tomorrow in the genetics of Conscientiousness. The genetics of Openness – outbreeding vs. inbreeding – play out more in social issues. Oh …

      … and they play out in war. Conservatives are, on average, more willing to support group violence, both within the group (“Those Occupy protesters should be shot!”) and against other groups (“Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”). While some of that is about control of resources, some is also about control of reproduction. There’s a reason rape is so common in war zones….

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    Is this an important qualifier:

    Although medians and variances vary, scores for the Big Five traits form a normal distribution curve within cultures around the world.

    How significant is median and variance variation between cultures? Will we also be looking at cross cultural differences?

    • NCrissieB

      The variation in median and variance between cultures can be significant, Jim. We’ll discuss the theories on the environmental and biological conditions that cause those variations, and the predictions that suggests, on Saturday.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Dear Crissie and friends,

    Thank you very much for your interest in Our Political Nature, and for your summary. I’m very happy that you highlighted the moralistic and the naturalistic fallacies. And I’m glad that you emphasized that the book does not argue for biological determinism. As you pointed out, the heritability of political attitudes falls between 40 and 60 percent, depending on what traits you’re measuring and on the environment. This means that approximately half of the variation in people’s political attitudes comes from genetic differences between individuals, while the rest comes from the environment.

    I’d like to clarify a couple of points:

    I don’t think that the Blocks’ study related to Openness and Conscientiousness. They looked at specific behaviors of preschool children (such as being under or over-controlled, or rigidifying under stress, or being talkative), and then related them to their political orientation as young adults.

    Openness Conscientiousness, and the rest of the OCEAN form the Big Five personality traits. These are the most empirical personality dimensions (based on statistical analyses) that psychologists and biologists use to describe our general personality dimensions (as well as those of some other animals). So these general traits form a nice universal measuring stick that we can carry from culture to culture. We can even measure the personalities of chimpanzees, which are the only other animal known to have full Conscientiousness (C). Openness (O) is rare as well; it’s only partially present in the semi-social orangutan.

    Beyond the general facets of the human personality, there are more specialized parts of it. One of these parts is political orientation. O and C correlate fairly well with left-right voting in the cultures we’ve looked at, but there are more specific tests that have stronger predictive power to place individuals and political parties in order from left to right. The best survey test we currently have is called the RWA Scale. This stands for Right Wing Authoritarianism. The name is perhaps a little bit biased, since what it really measures is liberalism and conservatism, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The RWA Scale, and it’s cross-cultural triumphs, serve as a point of departure from the social sciences throughout the book. From there, different chapters delve deeper into the hard sciences – into fields like neuroscience, genetics, primatology, and even immunology.

    There’s another important point to clarify. In the summary paragraphs above that are about inbreeding and outbreeding, there is a bit of confusion about conservative and liberal individuals, compared with cultures, compared with people who marry close cousins. The book shows that within a group, liberals and conservatives have different levels of ethnocentrism and xenophilia (attraction to outgroups). For example in the US, online-dating data reveals that conservatives are more likely to prefer partners from their own race, while liberals are more open to partners from other races and of other body types. In addition, Republicans are about twice as likely as Democrats to believe that “people of different races marrying one another is a bad thing for society”. So there are different probabilities, depending on political orientation, of people marrying within or outside of their ethnic group. These two tendencies are endogamy and exogamy.

    Inbreeding and outbreeding are similar but different. These are biology terms that describe a tendency to reproduce with a mate who is more or less related to an individual, in comparison with a mate choice selected at random from the population. So it’s important to recognize that these are different but overlapping concepts. Conservatives aren’t necessarily inbreeding, for example.

    Having said that, there are differences between cultures. In some extremely conservative parts of the world, both endogamy and inbreeding are much more prevalent. For example, in Pakistan about half of marriages are to a first cousin. The book offers a hypothesis of why inbreeding rates are unevenly distributed around the world.

    Finally, it’s very important to emphasize that these natural forces do not exist for the benefit of a group or culture or to strengthen or weaken social ties. Rather, they reflect the successes and failures of our ancestors and would-be ancestors. It’s late as I write this, so it would perhaps be best to quote one of the most important paragraphs in the book, which comes from the conclusion:

    “We’re here with the political orientations we have because our ancestors’ personalities helped them survive and reproduce successfully over thousands of generations. Their political personalities were instrumental in the regulation of inbreeding and outbreeding [TODAY’S LESSON]. These dispositions helped them mediate biological conflicts between parents, offspring, and siblings [THURSDAY’S LESSON]. And their moral emotions also balanced various types of altruism against self-interest in countless social interactions [FRIDAY]. In some types of social or ecological environments, more extreme personality traits were adaptive. In most cases, moderate personality solutions proved fit. That’s one reason why there are many moderates among us. Another reason for moderates and flexibility is that environments change, so it wouldn’t make sense for our genes to rigidly determine our personalities. They just influence them based on the “memory” of our ancestors’ success.”

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s summary and questions 🙂


    • NCrissieB

      Hi Avi,

      Thank you for the detailed reply. 🙂 I apologize for conflating the OCEAN and RWA measurements. The RWA is, as you say, a more reliable predictor of political behavior. While Openness and Conscientiousness scores correlate to RWA, they are different measures. I focused on the OCEAN scores because there are stronger data for their hereditary nature, and your book’s premise is that we inherit a predisposition for conservative or liberal political behaviors.

      Thank you for the clarification on in/outbreeding. Your data showed that this varied widely between cultures. My sense was that conservatism or liberalism nudged people toward in/outbreeding, relative to overall norms in their cultures. That’s why I used the parenthetical “(for their cultures)” so often in my essay. I expressly did not intend to imply that close cousin inbreeding is common among U.S. conservatives, and I apologize if that was unclear.

      Thank you again for joining us this week!

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • RWA is also heritable. There is a nice study and graph in chapter 2 of twins separated at birth and their correlations on RWA scores.