People are ‘hardwired’ to be either liberal or conservative

New book from Rice political scientist examines biological differences that shape political beliefs

Are individuals “hardwired” to be either liberal or conservative? A new book from researchers at Rice University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) suggests that this may in fact be the case.

In “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences,” authors John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice; John Hibbing, the Foundation Regents University Professor of Political Science at UNL; and Kevin Smith, professor of political science at UNL, argue that the “universal rift” between conservatives and liberals endures not because of societal or familial influences, but because people have diverse psychological, physiological and genetic traits.

These biological differences influence much of what makes people who they are, including their orientations to politics, Alford said.

“It is our biology, and not always reason or the careful consideration of facts, that predisposes us to see and understand the world in different ways,” Alford said. “These predispositions are in turn responsible for noteworthy moments of political and ideological conflict that mark human history.”

History is full of these noteworthy moments, Alford said, from the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and John Adams in the 18th century to the heated televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968 to the present day’s political “talking heads.”  The book acknowledges that people take politics very seriously and enjoy validation of their own opinions and vilification of their opponents’ opinions.

“Diatribes against liberals and conservatives enjoy a guaranteed audience of partisans all subscribing to the maxim, ‘why be informed when you can be affirmed?’” the book reads.

Alford said that the key to getting along politically is not the ability of one side to see the error of its ways but rather the ability of each side to see that the other is different, not just politically, but physically.

“Political disputes typically spring from the assumption that those who do not agree with us are shallow, misguided, uninformed and ignorant,” Alford said. “‘Predisposed’ suggests instead that political opponents simply experience, process and respond to the world differently.”

For more information on the book, visit www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415535878/.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.