I asked Pete Hatemi to write about his article “The Influence of Major Life Events on Economic Attitudes in a World of Gene‐Environment Interplay” which just appeared in the October issue of the American Journal of Political Science. He writes:
A great deal of research has shown that our DNA (genes) has some role in why people differ on just about everything that matters to why we are human, and to a whole bunch of things we never even thought of (e.g., bacterial microbes in our saliva, yum!). Over the last few years, a handful of political scientists, including myself, have begun exploring the import of DNA on why we differ politically, and have found that differences in our DNA affect a person’s views of the world, their attitudes and their ideologies, almost as much as his or her circumstances do, and far more than most social scientists are willing to admit. Indeed, in a separate study forthcoming at Behavior Genetics, we relied on samples taken from the US, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, and Hungary, and find that about half of the reason of why people differ in political attitudes within a given society could be attributed to differences in DNA.
But the roles DNA have on multi-faceted human traits, including political attitudes, is supremely complex. Only those totally misinformed about DNA would suggest that there are particular genes, or versions of genes “for” being liberal or conservative or that genetic influences are fixed, unchangeable, and predetermine our values. Rather, differences in our DNA, the thousands upon thousands of genetic markers and the interactions between them (and the world we live in), provide the first step in our “inclinations”; they have a role in forming our psychological processes of thought, and emotion, and preferences, including regulating hormones that change our emotional state. They indirectly help guide which opinions an individual will find most attractive, and which experiences we choose to select.
So far, most of the research that has attempted to link DNA with political values has done so independently of one’s personal experiences. A critical point about this observation is that we know that genes and experience continually interact, and they do not operate independently of our social world. Parenting style, resources, education, friends, weather, and all the things we experience growing up, or in adulthood, have a phenomenal role in why we differ. But everyone reacts slightly different even to the most extreme experiences, and this difference in reaction is partly due to our differences in DNA, partly to how we grew up and partly to our experiences in adult life and the infinite interactions between those forces.
In science, on occasion we progress by great leaps, but most often we progress incrementally. We are often limited by the tools we have to explain complex behaviors, and by necessity, we take one-step at a time, in developing both theory and method to better understand human behavior. This study provides one of those important next steps, by exploring the interaction of genes and environment. It shows that the life events we experience, such as losing our job, or going bankrupt, effectively abolish the genetic influences on why we differ on attitudes toward immigration, unions, and other attitudes, but increases the import of DNA on other attitudes like taxation.
In this way, it appears our default state is heavily influenced by our genetically informed psychological processes of thought, but life events create a shock to that system and trump the status quo. It appears, those psychological processes more appropriate to survival or self-interest, kick in when faced with life changing circumstances. We cannot yet tell if the same genetic influences are being repressed or elicited or if life events trigger different cognitive and emotive processes from entirely different genetic mechanisms.
If there is a single takeaway from the study is that differences in our DNA have an important role of why we differ, but this role does not operate independently of the world we live in or our experiences; they are part of one another. Our genes sometimes respond to the environment, sometimes have a role in the experiences we select into; genetic influence sometimes dissipates when overwhelmed with life events, and sometimes, other genetic processes like those related to survival kick in.