Friday, March 15, 2013

Genes, Fear and Politicians

A study by a team of researchers at a selection of universities in the United States has recently published a study with the rather wordy title of "Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences".  This study looks at the relationship between genetics, fear and political preferences.  Recent mass killings and the Boston bombing have already set society on edge and it is now that the fears of many Americans are vulnerable to being exploited.

We all know (or should know) that politicians often consciously or unconsciously use fear to manipulate the voting public into seeing things their way so that they will gain public support for their agenda.  One of the biggest, most recent examples of this was the Bush II Administration's use of fear to convince Americans that going to war against terrorism, and in particular Saddam Hussein, was necessary after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Human fear is related to our genetic makeup and, as a result, each one of us are differently disposed to fear since it is our different genetic factors that make us respond differently to fear-triggering stimuli since each of us has a different perception of an event.  The authors of the study then relate individual disposition toward fear to attitudes toward "out-groups" or a social group to which we do not belong.  As the Conflict Resolution Consortium at the University of Colorado states:

"The term "out-group" refers to anyone who is not in your own group. In conflicts between groups of people, disputants usually view people outside their own group as less good, or in the case of the opposing group, really bad. The term "enemy image" refers to the same thing.  The opposing groups is seen as "the enemy," who is inferior to one's own group in many ways."

Doesn't that paragraph explain a lot about today's political landscape where the "other side" is viewed as inferior and even dangerous even though both sides of the spectrum are actually "on the same side"?  It goes a long way to explain the use of derogatory words like "libtard" among others.

Back to the study.  The researchers note that genetic influences account for up to 50 percent of the individual variation in adult disposition toward fear.  Other factors that influence fear are psychological and social in nature, for example, one's family situation, culture and experience.  Children who have less secure family attachments generally experience more fear and are generally found to be more adverse to new situations and people throughout the remainder of their lives.  This fear of unknown others (i.e. out-groups) results in the perception of threats to the "in-group" or the group that they belong to.  Generally, more fearful individuals will be less comfortable with unfamiliar social situations and are less willing to interact with new people and environments, particularly when it brings them into contact with "unlike others".  Other studies also show that show that fear prevents an individual from fully assimilating new information.    When these individuals feel that they are being confronted with a situation where they may suffer a loss of some type (i.e. a loss of freedom), their fear level is raised even further.  A good example of this is the perception that immigration results in the threat of job losses; even if that is not necessarily the case, fearful individuals may not be able to assimilate data that shows that the threat is minimal.

As noted above, higher levels of social fear results in higher bias against out-groups.  This fear trait has a strong influence on political attitudes toward out-groups (i.e. immigrants) because the perception is that they are threatening on some level.

The study consisted of 29682 kinships from 8636 families including 14753 twins and 3184 non-twin siblings with 99 percent of the test subjects being Caucasian.  The individuals were then psychologically assessed for phobias and fears and their political attitudes were measured using an attitude index that measured conservatism-liberalism.

Here are the graphical results followed by an explanation:

The relationship between fear and political leaning was tenuous at best as shown on the first graph, except in the case of extremely fearful individuals (less than 0.3 percent of the sample) who were almost always conservative politically (a negative score on the Liberal-Conservative Index on the first graph).  The results on the second graph show that the degree of social fear is strongly related to the attitude toward out-groups, those who are not "us".  Even the lowest amount of social fear results in a substantially less positive attitude toward those who are seen to be "different".  That said, the authors found that political preferences represented "...a manifestation of a genetic disposition expressed within the context of modern circumstances".  Some people are genetically predisposed to acquire fears in response to novel circumstances.

What concerns me about the relationship between genetics, fear and attitude towards those that we deem to be outsiders is that politicians can use this to exploit us for their own good.  Rather than a scenario where it is us (voters) viewing them (politicians) as an out-group, they manipulate us into believing that it is us (Republicans in the United States/Conservatives in Canada) against them (Democrats in the United States/Liberals and NDP in Canada).  By dividing us, they win and ultimately, we all lose.  In addition, by creating fear of outsiders, foreign or domestic, innocent and well-meaning people are found guilty by affiliation.


  1. Fear mongering can be a lucrative business. Take the case of Alan Gottlieb who founded the Second Amendment Foundation and several other patriotic sounding gun advocacy groups in the 1970's via direct mail. He has to be a billionaire by now. In his 1993 book, Trashing the Economy, Gottlieb reveals his lucrative business plan:

    "The message of the direct mail letter must appeal to three base emotions; Fear, Hate and Revenge...he says. "[The] fund raising mailer must present you with a crisis -- a problem won't do...That crisis must frighten you...If you are not frightened, you won't send money...
    "Then the direct mail letter must present you with a bogeyman against whom to focus your anger...
    "Once you've been frightened and made to hate the bogeyman, the successful direct mail appeal must offer you a way to get revenge against the bogeyman -- the payoff for your contribution. The more soul-satisfying the revenge, the better the letter pulls.
    "All this must be dressed up in an appeal that appears to have a high moral tone, but which -- without you realizing it -- works on your lower emotions." His co-author Ron Arnold commented, "in direct mail, fear, hate and revenge go a long way."

    Alan 'they're coming for your guns' Gottlieb told a Bellevue, WA Eastside reporter in 1994 that he mails out 25 million direct-response letters every year and that recipients mail back $24 million. Says Alan, I turn the spigot on, the money just flows." All contributed by the frightened people whose "lower emotions" he has worked on. He brags, "I am the premiere anti-communist, free-enterprise, laissez-faire capitalist," .

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.